In the early morning, the fog lays thick and low across empty fields. Graceful, draped spiderwebs, dew-speckled and ethereal, glow against a backdrop of dark earth and deeply-green, wild grasses that have sprouted amongst the skeletal remains of corn. The market season is coming to a close.
It was this time last year that we left Georgia for good. The monotony of evergreen pines thinned as we headed north, our route, along scenic two-lane highways and back roads, increasingly dominated by vast fields of cotton. We drove through a handful of small towns, down dilapidated main streets, with dusty store-fronts and chipped and faded signs above boarded-up windows. We passed cheerful, pastel-painted Victorians with big porches and bright flower pots hanging from the eaves. Sagging trailers with lazy dogs out front, and the best hole-in-the-wall barbecue joints you can find. But mostly it was open country. Dense swaths of tall trees would suddenly open up to cotton. Rows and rows of scrubby, bare plants dotted with white, puffy bolls traced the edges of the road.
I’d forgotten that landscape. Months later, when the frozen, grey ground finally burst alive again, that familiar, bracing humidity, that lush wildness that I had come to know of the South, returned. With each month, more forcefully so. The land hummed loudly, constantly, with the nagging din of insects and energetic, seemingly unstoppable growth. This untamed Southern land – of red dirt and swampy woods, thick with walls of knotted brush beneath shadowy pines – remains perpetually inclined to swallow us back into those deeply-rooted, tangled depths.
And then, a pause. The driving fury of those middle months subsided, the vibrancy and color receding, leaving in its wake only a quiet, muted landscape; a cyclical respite framed in hushed tones of grey and brown. The land rests. The cotton waits again on naked, dry branches, ready to be picked, and I can’t believe it’s been another year.
With the evening dusk creeping in ever earlier, I’m happiest in our cozy kitchen, fussing over big pots of simmering stock and roasted vegetables. Windy, cold days beg for hearty, comforting dishes, and this butternut squash soup has been one of my favorites as of late. The recipe combines roasted butternut squash with sweet apples, fennel and a splash of walnut oil for a savory soup that stands up nicely to this chilly weather.
This soup also happens to be vegan and gluten-free – taking advantage of the naturally creamy texture and body that the roasted squash provides – but you wouldn’t know it by taste. I didn’t set out to make the recipe super healthy per sé, but it does makes for a nice balance against the plethora of baked goods I’ve found myself (willingly) surrounded by lately.
Butternut Squash, Apple and Fennel Soup
- 1-1/2 tbsp olive oil
- 1-1/2 tbsp walnut oil, plus more for serving
- 1 medium fennel bulb (stalks removed), chopped
- 1 large yellow onion, minced
- 1 large apple, peeled, cored, and chopped
- 1 tbsp fresh garlic, minced
- 4 cups roasted butternut squash (recipe below)
- 1/2 tsp dried thyme
- 1/2 tsp ground sage
- 3 cups unsalted or low-sodium vegetable stock
- kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste
- optional garnish: chopped walnuts
Roasted Butternut Squash
- 2 butternut squash, peeled, cored, and chopped into 1-inch cubes
- olive oil
- kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper
Roast the butternut squash
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Arrange the the squash in an even layer on a sheet pan, and toss with just enough olive oil to coat. Season liberally with salt and pepper.
- Roast for 30-40 minutes, tossing half-way through, until the squash is fork-tender and just beginning to brown. Let cool.
Make the soup
- Heat the olive and walnut oils in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the fennel and onion, and cook, stirring occasionally until just softened, about 2-3 minutes. Add the apple and garlic, and continue cooking for another 2-3 minutes.
- Add the butternut squash, sage and thyme to the pot, and cook, stirring occasionally, until warmed through and combined. Add the vegetable stock and season to taste with salt and pepper. Bring to a simmer, then turn the heat down to low and let cook for another 15 minutes. Remove the soup from the heat, and using a traditional or immersion blender, blend until smooth. Serve warm with crispy bread, a drizzle of walnut oil and fresh chopped walnuts.
Depending on the size of your butternut squash, you may end up with slightly more roasted squash than you need for the soup. The squash can be roasted up to a week in advance and kept refrigerated in an airtight container until ready to use.