Some generous friends of my mother offered me a berth on their sailboat in the British Virgin Islands for a week earlier this month. I struggled to find a reason why I shouldn’t go, gave up, and called Skipper Tom with my flight information.
Would you believe me if I told you that one can eat very well on a 38 foot sailboat? A certain pizza-on-fire incident (not my fault!) notwithstanding, the dinners on board were excellent. We had grilled ribeye steaks with spinach salad; pork chops, baked beans, and coleslaw; stuffed chicken breasts and roasted asparagus. Not exactly roughing it.
I’ve had some amazing food in the Caribbean, but none of it has come from a hotel kitchen. Empanadas from a truck in Vieques, spicy meat stew (I think it was goat) at the market in St. Lucia, grilled whole fish on a dock in Guadeloupe, vegetarian Rasta fare in Jamaica. It pays to seek out the local stuff. The standout meal, this trip, was a lunch of conch fritters, chicken roti, and barbecued pork at Cane Garden Bay.
Back at home, I wanted something with island flavor that would satisfy my cold weather blues, and a spicy squash soup seemed like the answer. Hard squashes like pumpkin are used throughout the Caribbean, in soups and stews. They are also in season in this cooler part of the world.
Don’t be frightened by the habañero: This potent pepper gives the soup a little kick, but the end result is far from incendiary. Do handle it carefully, however: The seeds and ribs are super hot, so remove them before chopping up the rest of the pepper. I recommend wearing gloves while handling them, and if you do touch them with bare fingers, keep those fingers away from your eyes.
My first restaurant job was at a restaurant in Longmont, Colorado called Tortugas, a Cajun-Caribbean fish house. To eat fresh seafood in a landlocked state is not exactly eating local, unless you consider that most of the other restaurants there are national chains. But Pete, the chef, was a great cook, and I still crave that food. His soups were always delicious, and I certainly thought of him when I was putting this together.
Squash and Coconut Soup
4 T unsalted butter
1 large or 2 small onions, chopped
1 T fresh ginger, finely chopped
1 habañero pepper, seeded, ribs removed, and finely chopped
3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 t salt
1/2 t ground allspice
3/4 t dried thyme
1 butternut squash (3-4 lbs), peeled, seeded, and cut into 1″ pieces
4 c chicken stock, vegetable stock, or water
1 14 oz. can of unsweetened coconut milk
1 or 2 limes, for juice
In a heavy bottomed pot, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions, ginger, habañero, garlic, and salt to the pan and saute until the onions are soft, about 10 minutes. Don’t let the onions brown. Add the allspice and thyme, and cook another minute or two.
Add the squash and stock and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook, covered, until the squash is very soft, about 20 minutes. Remove from heat. Using a blender, food processor, or hand-held immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. If you use a blender, allow it to cool before you puree it, and work in small batches. Return the soup to the pan (if you’ve used the immersion blender it’s already there) and stir in the coconut milk. Gently reheat the soup if necessary, but try not to let it boil.
Season with salt and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.