By Patricia Lee Sharpe
A certain person hates the mere thought of Slapdash Cooking. He’s a mathematician. Mathematicians like precision. QED and all that.
Other family members focus on other foibles of Slapdash Cookery. A very silly Christmas present turned up with my name on it this year. It was a dish towel, with a sad story: I cooked. It burned. I ordered takeout.
OK, I'm guilty, except for the takeout part. The Slapdash Cook is nothing if not ingenious about saving the day.
I revel in the rhythms of chopping, dicing, slicing, mixing, blending, as well as in the taste-testing that transmutes raw ingredients into deliciousness. However, I’m notorious for forgetting that food over flame needs to be checked on, often. We all know that a watched pot never boils. In my kitchen there’s a corollary. The unwatched pot scorches or catches fire.
The worst thing that ever happened was an oil fire that licked at cabinets and sooted up the house before it could be extinguished with heaps of baking soda. What a mess from a little oil in a frying pan! Flame creep is the downside of gas burners.
The more banal scenario involves singed broccoli or sauce sticking onto pots with enough char to tinge the flavor of what’s technically not burnt. Those dark flecks in the tomato sauce? They aren’t flakes of oregano or basil. And there won’t be as much risotto as expected tonight, because the rest is clinging to the pot. As was much of the oatmeal I meant to have for breakfast this morning. Oh well! I overate last night.
Timers, you say. Why don’t I use them? Simple. They don’t like me. The timer was the first part of my oven’s control apparatus to die. Replacing the clock mechanism will impoverish me only slightly less than buying a new oven. Meanwhile, with lots of Christmas cooking on the agenda, I bought a timer from the kitchenwares section of the local supermarket. Its signal wasn’t musical, but the message got through. Hey there! Check the cookies! Unfortunately it died a premature death, shortly after the gang arrived. Now I’m relying on my Blackberry, which worries me. If all timers I touch are jinxed, will my cell phone work when I’m stuck in the snow and need to summon a wrecker?
Well, Christmas in Santa Fe wasn’t white this year. It was brown, which disappointed my snow-loving family. However, the Slapdash Cook won over the doubting number-cruncher. How? With Curried Winter Squash Soup.
Acorn squash. Butternut squash. They’re piled high in all markets now. Either works, but I prefer the deeper flavor of the acorn variety. Whichever, however, it’s a battle to muscle these things open. I plant a chef’s knife into the belly of a squash, grab a hammer, then pound on point and handle, until the blade deigns to cut through. The hard-won halves get plopped, seed side down, on a foil-lined cookie sheet, and baked at about 350 ̊, until the flesh is soft. (Test with a skewer—en garde!) That will take up to 45 minutes. Or more. Keep (ahem!) testing. (By the way, given what’s below, I hope you chose a medium-sized acorn or a slightly less than medium-sized butternut.)
Now comes the delectably aromatic part of the soup-making. Dice a fat onion and two robust stalks of celery. Sauté them, gently, in two tablespoons of oil, plus as much butter as you like or need to do the job. Once the onion approaches transparency, add an apple, peeled and diced. When all elements are soft but not mushy, add roughly two teaspoons of curry powder, the amount depending on the oomph of the spice and your love for piquancy. Fry, stir and scrape long enough to tease out the flavors of the spices without letting brown turn to black. This is a tricky but key element in all curry Cooking, so you're stuck with another judgement call! But that’s the nature of Slapdash cooking. It's not for cowards or the indecisive.
Finally, squash and spices must be eased into some combination of stock and milk or cream. I prefer 1/4 skim milk to 3/4 low-sodium organic chicken stock—or, better, the homemade kind, if there's any around. Now spoon-scrape the squash from its skin and get that blender or food processor going. Just remember: the liquid you add determines the soup you'll get—tangy (less milk) or unctuous (some cream, though too much will overpower the curry). Once the blending’s done, adjust the flavor and texture. You’ll have about two quarts of soup.
I’ve made this Curried Winter Squash Soup three times in the last month. Different squashes. Different curry powders. Different dairy/stock proportions. The final product is never the same, but it’s always delicious. In short, it's a typical slapdash concoction. No recipes. No finicky measurements. Terrific results.
And here’s the Christmas miracle. Not only did the mathematician ask for seconds, he asked for the recipe. What’s more, he declared that he's prepared (um—maybe) to follow the adventures of the—oh, horrors!—Slapdash Cook.
What more could I ask? Happy New Year.