butternut squash soup with oil braised garlic & fried sage

years ago, i studied abroad in switzerland for a semester of college. i was placed into to a vegetable-loving host family who loved to cook and shared dinner with them every night. at the time, and probably still, switzerland is absurdly expensive. i remember trying to buy a bell pepper in the grocery store in geneva, as a snack to have with hummus. the pepper wrung up as $5 us dollars. produce put me over my student budget and dining out was certainly not an option, so i was very grateful to have such wonderful meals provided to me. most nights, my hosts would have a tossed salad with a delicious vinaigrette recipe (that i use all the time!), crusty bread, a spread of swiss and french cheeses, a pureed vegetable soup, and a few nights a week they might eat fish or chicken. it was simple, nourishing food.

every night, the pureed soup with be something new. probably a blend of whatever produce needed to be used up. they were typically green, mildly spiced, and creamy only in texture. but always uniquely different. while i love the adaptability and range of pureed soups, one down side is that every bite is the same. it's not like a chunky stew with big hunks of mushrooms or spoonfuls of beans to keep your tongue entertained. a big bowl of pureed soup is sometimes too much of a good thing. unless of course it's one of those luscious flavors that you cannot get enough of. this pureed soup, might be one of them. no matter what though, a cup of pureed butternut squash soup as first course or paired with a hearty salad or sandwich, is a great way to experience just a little of a good thing.

side salad of massaged kale with olive oil, balsamic and hazelnut dukkah

butternut squash soup with oil braised garlic & fried sage ~ serves 8+
3 pound butternut squash*
2 small yellow onions, thinly sliced
1 head of garlic
1 bunch sage
1/4 cup + 2 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 quart vegetable stock
1/4 teaspoon red chili flakes
salt & pepper to taste

*or 2 pounds butternut squash and 1 pound sweet potato

for oil braised garlic
preheat oven to 350-degrees. peel garlic and cut any large cloves in half so that all cloves are roughly the same size. place in a small ramekin with 1/4 cup olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. cover tightly with foil and bake for 20-40 minutes. cooking time ranges significantly depending on the size of garlic cloves, so check them every 5 minutes or so after 20 minutes. continue to bake until garlic just begins to brown on the edges. remove from oven and let cool in oil, uncovered. i like to make the garlic while the soup is simmering and simply add the garlic when pureeing, but you could make garlic ahead of time to add to soup while simmering.

for the pureed soup
use a vegetable peeler to carefully remove the skin. i trim off the neck of the squash first, then cut both the bulb and the neck in half. cube the neck into small half-inch or slightly larger cubes and set aside. use a sharp spoon to remove the stringy flesh and seed from the bulb halves. slice bulbs into strips and then chop each strip into small wedges roughly the same size of the cubes. set aside. if using a portion of sweet potatoes, peel and chop sweet potatoes into equally sized cubes.

heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. add sliced onions and sauté for 5 minutes or so. chop 2-3 tablespoons for fresh sage into small strips and add to the pot. sauté for an additional minute or two, until sage is fragrant but not crisped. add squash (and sweet potatoes, if using) to the pot along with the chili flakes, nutmeg, a half teaspoon of salt to start and a few cracks of fresh black pepper. add just enough stock to semi-submerge the cubed veggies. better to have not enough liquid than too much - you can always add stock later in the blending process.

cover pot and bring to a simmer, then lower heat and simmer until vegetables are extra tender. by this time your braised garlic should be finished. add garlic drained from oil at any point to simmering soup.

you could use an emersion blender or transfer batches of the soup to a blender to purée until smooth. add additional broth until you reach desired consistency. taste to adjust seasoning. serve immediately, or return to soup pot to simmer if soup has cooled off considerably while blending.

for the fried sage
this is an elegant added touch for serving. i wouldn't make them ahead of time, as they will loose their crispness. just make a few fried sage leaves per serving to top your bowls of soup.

transfer the oil used for braising the garlic to a small skillet or sauté pan. heat over medium heat, being careful to keep oil under the smoke point. trim a few sage leaves and add to preheated oil. (you can test one first, to make sure oil is hot enough - it should sizzle instantly) watch closely, as they fry quickly. i wait until just the very tips start to turn slightly brown. strain from oil and place onto a paper towel to drain. leaves should be brittle yet still vibrant green.