I haven’t been around much lately.
After a difficult couple of months, some generous friends of my mother offered me a berth on their sailboat in the British Virgin Islands. I struggled briefly to find a reason why I shouldn’t go, then gave up and promptly 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? Barring a certain pizza-on-fire incident (not my fault!!), the dinners on board were excellent. Grilled ribeye steaks with spinach salad. Pork chops, baked beans, and coleslaw. Stuffed chicken breasts and roasted asparagus. Not exactly roughing it.
But we didn’t always eat on the boat.
At Cane Garden Bay we lunched on conch fritters, chicken roti, and barbecued pork, washed down with icy Caribs. I had the best fish and chips of my life at — of all places — the yacht club in Roadtown.
I have had some amazing food in the Caribbean, but none of it has come from a hotel kitchen. Empanadas from a truck in Vieques, spicy lamb stew at the market in St. Lucia, grilled whole fish dockside in Guadeloupe, vegetarian Rasta fare in Jamaica… It pays to seek out the local stuff.
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, is 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.
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 here in the cooler States. I used butternut squash because it is easy to peel and has a smooth texture. But you could use pumpkin, too. Or sweet potatoes for that matter.
Don’t be frightened by the habañero: This potent pepper gives the soup a little kick, but the end result is far from mouth burning. Whatever you do, handle it carefully: The seeds and ribs are super hot, so remove them before chopping up the rest of the pepper. As with any hot peppers, you must wash your hands after handling them. Do not, I repeat DO NOT touch your eyes or any other, ahem, sensitive parts without having thoroughly washed up.
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
pinch of cinnamon
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
1. 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.
2. Add the allspice, thyme, and cinnamon and cook another minute or two.
3. 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.
4. Using a blender, food processor, or hand-held immersion blender, puree the soup until smooth. If you use a blender, allow it to cool and add it too the blender in small batches. The same goes for a food processor. With the immersion blender you can (carefully) dive right in.5. 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.
6. Season with salt (I used about another teaspoon) and a squeeze of fresh lime juice.
7. Serve hot.
Variations: This can be made with an equal weight of sweet potatoes replacing the squash, but the cooking time will be longer. It would also be good curried: Use a high quality curry powder in place of the allspice, thyme, and cinnamon.