There is something intimidating about a long list of ingredients. Even an experienced cook looks at a recipe with a dozen things to measure, chop, peel, pour or sift and wonders, “Hmm, do I have time and energy for this?”
Compared to a really yummy three-ingredient recipe like the lemon mousse that I offered here last May — which apparently many of you liked very much as we did here at my house — a whole raft of great-tasting from-scratch dishes might just feel like a great big bother.
So why make this butternut bisque from scratch?
For one thing, I don’t think you will even find many pre-prepared butternut bisques out there. You can find a 32-ounce package of plain butternut soup, which might serve three people for a meal with a salad or sandwich on the side. If I lived alone, I’d be tempted to pick up a package and bisque it up by adding some stewed tomatoes and cream.
A recipe can look awfully authoritarian, but since most of us aren’t running restaurants where consistency is essential, we can get away with ignoring or tinkering so that how we cook something matches our real lives. Maybe the secret to overcoming recipe shock is seeing how to break a recipe down to a few essential elements which often are more flexible than one might think.
Take soup. Soups can be a straight-up meat, vegetable, pea or bean with grain or pasta. Or it might reflect a distinct style, like chowder, consomme, cream-of-something soup, or bisque. In each case, it’s helpful to know what characterizes the particular style.
Speaking generally, chowder has salt pork, onion and seafood in a milk broth (but not always.) Consomme is clear. Cream-of-something soup has milk or cream added and is pureed (a great way to use leftover vegetables). Bisque usually contains tomatoes and cream and is pureed.
You’ll need the basic ingredient it is made of, usually, the item(s) mentioned in the name: the broth, stock or water that makes it a soup instead of stew or solid side-dish. Add flavor starting with onion, celery, carrot (sometimes), and garlic, usually cooked in a fat — vegetable oil, butter or meat fat — and ending with fresh or dry herbs and spices. Some soups have enhancements, like milk or cream, cheese or garnishes.
Lots of times, if you lack a specific part of any of the non-basic elements, substitute. If you substitute enough, you might end up creating your own unique recipe. Not bad, eh?
Here is a breakdown of the following soup, adapted from a pumpkin bisque from a Thanksgiving cookbook I co-authored years ago. Have fun with it.
Start with flavoring: butter and oil or all butter or all oil. If you don’t have all four of the vegetables, just use onion or celery.
Next add the tomatoes, which in this case makes it a bisque. No tomatoes? Leave them out and it won’t be a bisque, but who cares?
Next is broth: chicken broth, homemade or from bouillon, or vegetable broth; or if no broth, use water.
Then comes the basic ingredient: butternut squash. Or really any of the orange winter squashes or pumpkin. Or if you are desperate, any orange root vegetable cooked and pureed. Use canned squash or frozen chunks.
More flavoring: curry, bay leaf or something you like better. Or none.
Enhancement: Since this is a bisque, you have to use cream or half and half. Evaporated milk works. If you want to push it, use whole milk, a plant-based milk, or a little yogurt or sour cream, but then it isn’t bisque.
Finally, salt and pepper to taste. Which means you just taste it and add what you like. Are you having fun yet?
Curried Butternut Bisque
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
1 large carrot, peeled and grated
2 garlic cloves, minced
3/4 cup canned crushed tomatoes with juice
1 quart chicken broth
2–3 cups cooked and pureed butternut squash
1–2 teaspoons curry powder or more to taste
2 bay leaves
1 cup light cream or half and half
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt the butter with the olive oil over a medium-high heat then add the onion, celery, carrot, garlic and cook for 10 minutes or until the vegetables are soft.
Add the tomatoes, broth, squash, curry powder and bay leaves.
Heat until boiling, then reduce the temperature to simmer and cook for 15 minutes.
Pick out the bay leaf and toss.
Puree the soup with a stick blender if you have one, otherwise let it cool and puree in a blender or food processor.
Just before you are ready to serve, add the cream and rewarm it.
Garnish with a dab or sour cream or chutney or minced parsley.