Steve was heading off on a business trip, leaving me the big decision of where to spend the week without him: in Los Angeles or at our cabin high up in the Sierra mountains. That was an easy choice, because fall, my absolute favorite season in the mountains (that is, except for spring, summer and winter) wasn’t completely over. If I jumped in the car and drove fast, I just might catch the end of the glorious color show the aspen trees put on, and hopefully I could hike to the two remaining places I desperately wanted to see before snow closed the upper trails.
When the dogs and I arrived at our cabin, we were greeted by the few shimmering aspens still aflame in hues of gold and orange, a blue, blue sky, and daytime temperatures hovering around a perfect-for-hiking 49°F. We had scored!
The next day, I made Manchego cheese sandwiches, filled the water bladder in my pack, and trekked up 1,800 feet to Green Lake. A hike up steep, rocky switchbacks to an alpine basin with dramatic views of the surrounding craggy peaks. Being out in the mountains with only the dogs for company, allowed me to focus on the grandeur of the scenery, notice the black winged Clark’s Nutcrackers’ guttural squawks from their perches atop the highest pines, warning that strangers were invading their community. I felt the cooling breeze against my skin as we climbed higher and higher, and breathed in the earthy fragrance of the forest floor. I returned to the cabin too exhausted to cook dinner, so I scarfed down the extra cheese sandwich I had taken on the hike, and then collapsed into a hot bubble bath.
Thursday morning, we awoke to a white and very cold world, 14°F at 7 AM, the first snow of the season, only about 1 inch, but it was glittering under the shivering trees surrounding our cabin. Way too cold to hike up to another mountain lake, and I had work to do. In a month, I’ll be teaching cooking at Rancho La Puerta, a legendary health resort in Tecate, Mexico. I’d shopped for ingredients for the recipes I wanted to develop for my classes, and the cold made it a perfect day for soup making.
This thick butternut squash soup is particularly hearty, perfect sustenance for the first snowy day. Roasting the squash is much easier than peeling it and struggling to cut the hard flesh into cubes, with the added benefits of the oven’s heat warming up the cabin and filling it with tempting aromas. Plus, the caramelization that happens in the oven enriches the flavors. Sautéed mushrooms add texture, Aleppo pepper flakes and a touch of cinnamon add excitement, the the roasted seeds of the squash add crunch, and a drizzle of pure maple syrup brings everything together for a satisfying meal.
At the end of day, my neighbor Katharine and her two dogs introduced us to a nearby hike on snow dusted trails, trails that traveled down rather than up into the even colder and snowier higher realms. After the snowy walk, she came back to our cabin where we lit a fire and consumed bowls of the soup accompanied by toasted buckwheat bread studded with nuts and seeds, a treasured recipe I’ll share with you soon. As the soup warmed us up, we made plans for snow shoe adventures we’d share next time I escape the city to our mountain retreat, when it will doubtlessly be even whiter and colder.
Warming Butternut Squash Soup with Maple Drizzle
- 1 2½ to 3-pound butternut squash
- 2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing
- Coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1 large sweet potato
- 2 large onions, chopped
- 8- to 12- ounces crimini or button mushrooms
- 1½ teaspoons paprika
- 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus more for sprinkling
- ¼ teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1½ to 2 quarts vegetable broth or chicken broth, or more if needed
- Chopped fresh thyme
- Pure maple syrup
- Preheat the oven to 425°F. Cut the stem end off the squash, then cut the squash in half lengthwise. Scrape out the seeds and reserve. Brush the cut surface of the squash with olive oil, then sprinkle with salt and pepper. Arrange cut side down in a baking pan. Add about ½-inch water to the pan. Pierce the sweet potato several times with a fork and place on a small baking pan. Remove most of squash pulp from the squash seeds, then place the seeds in a pie pan or cake pan. Add 1 teaspoon of oil and a good sprinkling of salt and pepper; mix to coat.
- Roast seeds until brown and crisp, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Roast the squash and sweet potato until soft when pressed, 1 to 1½ hours, adding more water to the squash pan to maintain about ¼-inch, if necessary. Remove from the oven and let stand until cool enough to handle.
- Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large pot over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until starting to brown on the edges, about 12 minutes. Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and pepper. Sauté until beginning to soften about 4 minutes. Add the paprika, 1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper and cinnamon and stir just until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add 1½ quarts broth and bring to a boil.
- Scrape the squash and sweet potato from their skins, reserving any liquid in the pan with squash. Add squash, sweet potato and any liquid in squash pan to the soup. Simmer until flavors blend and squash and sweet potato are incorporated, using a potato masher to break down the squash and sweet potato, about 25 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper. For a smoother texture, use an immersion blender to partially puree the soup, leaving some texture. Thin to desired consistency with more broth. (Can be prepared 3 days ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewarm over medium heat, thinning with more broth if desired).
- Ladle the soup into bowls. Sprinkle with roasted squash seeds, Aleppo pepper, and thyme. Drizzle with maple syrup and serve.