We’ve had a harsh introduction to winter in the Santa Cruz Mountains, where I live.
Ferocious winds buffeted the redwoods surrounding my house for three days and nights last week, uprooting a huge tree just up the road, knocking down a utility pole and sending a long limb crashing through a skylight in the living room. The power was out for four days and the DSL just returned.
We’ve lived here a long time and we’re used to the electricity going out in the middle of big storms. We have a generator to keep the refrigerator, freezer and a couple of lamps running. But cooking becomes a challenge when the oven doesn’t work and you have to wear a backpacker’s headlamp to see clearly what you’re chopping.
I was grateful to have a beautiful red kabocha squash sitting on the kitchen counter when the lights went out. With a little curry paste, chicken stock and some coconut milk from the pantry, it made a spicy but soothing soup to improve our mood during a difficult week.
Of course it helps if you happen to have a squash on your counter and some Asian ingredients in your pantry. But this soup is so simple and flavorful, it’s worth stocking up for future emergencies. The Asian ingredients are commonplace in supermarkets now and hard-skinned winter squashes keep for quite a while in a cool, dry place.
The inspiration for this dish comes from the gardening/cooking journal, “Tender,” by Nigel Slater (Ten Speed Press, 2009). Slater is a gifted British cook who writes about the down-to-earth food that real people eat. His book is my go-to reference for interesting recipes using fresh produce.
Since the red kabocha, often called Japanese pumpkin, is an especially sweet and meaty winter squash, I was pretty sure it would work in the “pumpkin laksa for a cold night,” based on a traditional Malaysian soup. Butternut squash would work, too, although the flavor is not as rich.
To save time and energy, I steamed the flesh unpeeled. It was much easier to cut away after it had softened in the steam. I also added baby spinach leaves to give the soup enough substance for a one-dish meal.
Slater probably would be appalled that I’ve substituted jarred curry paste for the homemade version in his recipe. I’m sure his would be far better, too, but I didn’t have those ingredients on hand.
The first time I made this soup, I wildly overestimated the appropriate amount of commercial curry paste and produced an almost inedible concoction. Even my husband, who loves fiery food, found it hard to finish a bowl.
I may have erred on the side of caution with this recipe, so feel free to add more if it’s too mild for you. The spices add a warming tingle to the creamy soup accented with lime.
When temperatures drop and winds blow, this is just the soup to have in your repertoire.
1 pound fresh kabocha squash, unpeeled
4 ounces dried rice noodles
2 cups chicken broth (16 ounce aseptic box)
1¾ cups coconut milk (13.6 ounce can)
2 teaspoons Thai red curry paste, or more, to taste
2 cups, packed, fresh spinach leaves, washed
2 tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon tamari
Juice of 1 lime
Chopped fresh cilantro for garnishRemove seeds and cut squash into large chunks. Steam chunks over boiling water until a small, sharp knife easily pierces the skin and slides through the flesh. Remove from heat. When cool, remove skin by slipping a long, slender knife between the flesh and skin and carefully cutting it away. Cut cooked squash into pieces about 1-inch square. Set aside.Cook rice noodles according package instructions. Drain into a colander, rinse thoroughly in cold water. Toss noodles with a few drops of sesame oil, separating the strands so they don’t stick together.In a large, deep saucepan, whisk together broth and coconut milk. Add curry paste and whisk again. Bring mixture to a boil and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Stir in spinach and cook a few minutes more, until leaves begin to wilt. Add the fish sauce, tamari, lime juice, noodles, and cooked squash. Simmer just until all ingredients are warmed through. Serve in deep bowls with a sprinkle of cilantro.Inspired by pumpkin laksa recipe in “Tender,” by Nigel Slater.