Butternut squash soup is one of my favourite fall dishes. It’s quintessentially autumn – from the colour, to the flavours, to the aroma of warm spices simmered together in a broth made velvety by the purée of winter squash – which stands alone as something I look forward to making all year round. Kind of like my favourite sweater, it’s reliable, but too warm for September. I wait patiently for the “sweater weather” of October to arrive, when I can finally pull it out of the closet on that first blissfully cool autumn night. Though our favourite sweaters may be worn and threadbare in places, I would never suggest that they should be changed or improved upon in any way. They are perfect as they are. That’s not the case, however, when it comes to cooking. When I’m in the kitchen, I’m always looking for ways to kick up the flavours a bit and that’s exactly what happened with this recipe. As I was stirring the pot it was almost as if I had an Angel sitting on one shoulder and the Devil on the other. . .
“We all know that butternut squash soup is perfect just the way it is.” The Angel spoke with an air of authority. “Refined yet earthy, warm and comforting…” She kissed her fingers into the air in the same way an Italian chef does when he has created a dish that’s simply magnifico! I admit that I nodded in agreement.
“But,” countered the Devil, “what if there were ways to improve it? How would you go about doing so?”
That little devil, always planting the seeds of doubt! I started to wonder. What are the elements of this soup that I love most? The spice. The earthiness of winter squash. Yes, that could be highlighted by roasting the squash, caramelizing the edges and drawing out the moisture to intensify the flavours. And I love the subtle sweetness of butternut squash. What if it could be enhanced? My trick for adding a hint of sweetness without using sugar is with carrots. I use them to sweeten my tomato sauce, why not add a few to the soup? To round out the flavours I added a bit of honey and a touch of freshly grated Caribbean nutmeg . . . The Devil was happy.
Now, I could have stopped right there. The Angel was hungrily tucking a white napkin into the bodice of her satin gown… but the Devil had set the wheels turning, and he wasn’t done with me yet.
“I wonder,” he mused, more to himself than to me, “what could take this soup to the next level?”
“I could finish it with a swirl of cream or a drizzle of very good olive oil. Perhaps some fried onions? Or maybe I should garnish it with homemade croutons.” I reached for the loaf of last night’s bread sitting on the counter.
The Angel let out an impatient sigh and muttered something about greed and gluttony as she rummaged through her pockets for a spoon.
“Nah,” said the Devil, “It’s time to think outside of the bread box. What’s rich and salty, and compliments the autumn flavours of butternut squash and carrots that you love so well?”
Is this a riddle, I wondered as I thought through my options, or just a rhetorical question? And just then the little Devil whispered, “BACON.”
In my other ear I heard the Angel gasp.
Yes, bacon makes everything better! As I started poking around in the fridge, the Devil, in an attempt to keep our conversation private, crept ever so close to my ear and hissed, “Now, what if you could make bacon even better?”
“What?!” The angel yelled in protest. Angels hear even the subtlest of murmurings! “Bacon is GOD’s perfect food! To suggest it needs improvement is blasphemy of the highest degree! Let’s quit this depraved game of what-ifs and eat already.”
But the Devil went on…. and tempting me with a wicked sneer, he breathed one last word: “BOURBON.”
With that, the Angel, having had all her culinary sensibilities destroyed by this sacrilegious conversation, whipped the napkin from her chest and threw it high into the air as she disappeared in an indignant puff of smoke. The Devil coyly reached out and caught it as it fluttered down to the the ground. Carefully he tucked it into his shirt collar as the bacon sizzled in the pan and I made my way to the liquor cabinet.
Roasted Butternut Squash Soup with Bourbon Bacon Jam
1 butternut squash (approx. 2.5 lbs or 1kg)
extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
3 cups chicken broth
1 TBSP honey
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup (250ml) whole milk
fresh thyme, to garnish, optional
Bourbon Bacon Jam
12 oz (340g) bacon, chopped
1 tsp extra virgin olive oil
1 yellow onion, diced
1/3 cup (75ml) good quality bourbon or whiskey
2 TBSP dark brown sugar
pinch of salt
Preheat the oven to 400 F (200 C). Wash the squash and cut in half, lengthwise. Scoop out the seeds. Place the squash on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Generously rub olive oil inside and outside of the squash. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast the squash for 1 hour. Remove from the oven and let cool slightly
While the squash bakes, prepare the bacon jam:
Heat a teaspoon of olive oil in a medium sauce pot. Add the chopped bacon and cook over medium-low heat until the bacon is crisp. With a slotted spoon, remove the bacon to a bowl lined with paper towels. Pour off all but about one tablespoon of fat from the pan.
Place the pan back on the heat and add the diced onions to the remaining bacon fat. Cover and cook on low heat, stirring occasionally, for 25 – 30 minutes, until the onions are golden and caramelized. If the onions start to burn, add a splash of water to the pan and continue cooking.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the bourbon. Be careful around any open flames because the bourbon will easily flare up. Place the pan back on the heat. Stir in the brown sugar, cooked bacon and a pinch of salt. Cook the mixture over low heat until most of the liquid has evaporated and the bacon is thick and jammy. Remove from heat and set aside.
To finish the soup:
When the squash has finished roasting and is cooling, heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot or Dutch oven. Add the chopped onion and carrots, sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper. Sauté until the carrots start to soften. Add the minced garlic and cook a minute longer.
Stir in the chicken broth. Add the nutmeg and honey and bring to a simmer. Using a spoon, scoop the cooked squash from the peel and add it to the soup. Simmer about 10 minutes or until the carrots are very tender.
Using an immersion blender (or in batches in a countertop blender) purée the soup. Stir in the milk and heat until bubbling. Taste for seasoning, adding salt and pepper if necessary.
To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and top with a spoonful of bacon jam and a few fresh thyme leaves.