Roasted Butternut Soup, Savory Red Rice Pudding and Sage Foam
Here's a nice first course for the Thanksgiving table: a creamy soup made of roasted butternut squash, with a little island of red rice pudding in the middle, topped with light-as-air foamed milk flavored with sage. With the exception of the foaming of the milk it can all be done a day ahead, with only assembly to do on the big day.
A lot of recipes for butternut soup call for roasting the butternut "until fork tender," which usually turns out to be about 45 minutes to an hour at 375 - 400º. However, I've found that an hour and a half at 400º -- after which the situation looks quite dire, with the squash a mottled mahogany brown and looking quite saggy -- results in a sweeter, more flavorful taste and a completely yielding texture, the better for easily making an extremely smooth purée. I'm sure Professor Alton Brown could explicate the chemistry going on inside my squash, but all I know is that I like it better.
By the way, I learned this when a nap ran a little long one afternoon and I woke up in a house redolent with long-roasted squash. I expected to find an unusable cinder in the oven but instead found the best roasted squash ever. This is typically the way I learn new stuff in the kitchen: by screwing up, and observing the results. (I'm not saying I never throw it out when I burn something -- that's part of life -- I just taste it before I give up!)
This dish also marks the first in a series of experiments I plan with savory rice puddings. Emboldened by my investigations into savory bread puddings (click on "Veggies" in the directory on the upper right to see them), and ever looking for new ways to use the leftover rice that's always in my refrigerator, I plunge on. The red rice (which can be replaced with brown rice if you like) provides an interesting and unexpected chewiness to the dish, since it's invisible on presentation. On attacking the island with the spoon, however, the rice reveals itself, and as the soup is consumed the rice spreads into the soup, providing interest and texture as well as flavor.
Roasted Butternut Soup with Savory Red Rice Pudding and Sage Foam
Serves 6 - 8 in first-course portions.
1 butternut squash, about 2 lb
4 C low sodium chicken broth
1 medium onion, chopped
1 C heavy cream
hot sauce, fish sauce (or salt) to taste
Rub the squash with olive oil, prick all over with a fork and roast whole in a baking dish in a preheated 400º oven, about 1-1/2 hours. Allow to cool, cut in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the seeds and pulp. Pull off the skin and discard. Purée the squash and set aside.
Sauté the onions in some butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until translucent, 8 - 10 minutes. Purée the onions with half a cup of the broth.
Mix the broth, squash, and onion purée and simmer 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until heated through and well blended. Stir in the cream. Correct seasoning with hot sauce and fish sauce, bearing in mind that a healthy amount of salt is likely to be needed to counter the sweetness of the squash and produce a balanced result. (If you don't have or can't bring yourself to use fish sauce in this, substitute salt and don't worry about it. However, a healthy measure of adventurousness at this moment will be rewarded with a much more interestingly flavored and seductive soup.)
Rice Pudding Islands
1-1/2 C cooked Camargue red rice (or brown rice)
2 C + 3/4 C milk
4 eggs, slightly beaten with a fork
1 bay leaf
12 leaves fresh sage
1/2 C Parmeggiano Reggiano, shredded
1/2 C shallots, minced
salt, hot sauce to taste
Mix the rice with the 3/4 C milk, add the bay leaf and simmer, covered tightly, for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, sauté the shallots in some butter over medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes, until soft. Remove from heat. When the simmering of the rice is complete, remove and discard the bay leaf and transfer rice to a bowl. Add the remaining milk to the bowl, then add the eggs, shallots and about two-thirds of the cheese and mix well. Spoon the mixture into buttered ramekins, filling nearly to the top. (Be sure to stir frequently and ladle from the bottom of the bowl as you fill the ramekins, because the rice will settle to the bottom fairly quickly and you want to be sure to distribute the rice evenly among the ramekins.)
Bake the ramekins in a hot water bath halfway up the sides about 45 minutes at 350º. Then scatter on the remaining cheese and carefully broil them for a few minutes about 4" from the heat to melt the cheese and brown the top (or use a torch if you have one).
Allow to cool completely, then cover and refrigerate 'til cold. Run a sharp knife around the edge of each ramekin, hold it partially submerged in simmering water for about 30 seconds and turn it over onto a small plate to unmold. Place another small plate on the first one and flip the two over to turn the browned side up. Keep chilled until time to assemble the dish.
Note: if you like, the pudding can be done in one large soufflé dish or similar container and then scooped into the soup with an ice cream scoop. A differently shaped island but it works, and it's slightly easier for a large dinner.
Sage Foamed Milk
12 sage leaves
1-1/4 cup milk (or heavy cream, see instructions)
Toast the sage in a dry skillet over high heat, tossing and stirring constantly, until they just start to shrivel up and smoke. Transfer them to a blender bowl and pulverize on high. Add 1/4 C milk and blend smooth. Add the rest of the milk and refrigerate until time to assemble the dish. Foam the milk with the steam wand of an espresso machine, using the same technique as for cappuccino. (If you don't have a steam wand available, mix the pulverized sage into some heavy cream in a refrigerated bowl and whip to soft peaks with a whisk.)
To serve, warm the soup gently to just above serving temperature, place a rice pudding island in each warmed soup plate, spoon in the soup and finish with a dollop of foam. Garnish with a sage leaf.