Squashes are true natives of the New World, with research dating various species back thousands of years in the Americas. I’ve read that they were considered “the apples of God” by North American Indians, who had a strong belief that if planted close to settlements, they’d result in increased fertility. The modern butternut was developed in Massachusetts in the mid-20th century by crossing a Gooseneck and a Hubbard squash to achieve a sweet nuttiness with a buttery texture. I had never seen a butternut until I came to the United States, and I immediately fell in love with it. It was one of the first vegetables I fed my children — simply roasted, mashed and drizzled with copious amounts of ghee. The sweet texture lends itself so well to warm, savory and pungent spices. Over the years, I’ve used them in different ways: adding large chunks to simple homemade dal (curried lentils) preparations, for example, or topping the roasted squash with a sprinkling of sharp cheese and roasted cumin seeds. Butternut also tastes great with dollops of plain yogurt, freshly ground black pepper and whatever fragrant herbs you have at hand — and makes a wonderful addition to meat stews or curries. Here is a recipe for a simple, slightly creamy soup with a hint of clove that can be embellished for the holidays with the addition of lobster, shrimp or other seafood. The lentils add a depth of flavor, and the coriander tempering at the end adds a lemony note to contrast with the sweet butternut.
makes servings for 4-6
¼ cup yellow lentils
1 small butternut squash
1 (2-inch) piece of ginger
1 teaspoon turmeric powder
3-4 cloves, whole
1 cup coconut milk or heavy cream
6-plus cups of water or stock (see notes)
1½ teaspoons salt
2-3 tablespoons olive oil or ghee
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds
Mint, cilantro or curry leaves, for garnish
Rinse the lentils in cold water 2-3 times then soak for up to an hour. Drain.
Peel and chop the squash, discard the seeds and cut into small 1-inch pieces. Without peeling, roughly slice the ginger into smaller pieces.
Combine the squash chunks with ginger, turmeric, drained yellow lentils, cloves, coconut milk (or heavy cream), salt and 6 cups of water (or stock). Bring the mixture to a boil in a stockpot, cover and turn down heat to its lowest setting. Simmer for 30-40 minutes. Turn the heat off and let the soup rest for 15-20 minutes.
In a blender, purée the entire mixture until smooth. Return the soup to the stockpot. If the soup is too thick, add a little more water or stock.
In a small frying pan, heat up the olive oil (or ghee) until it is shimmering but not yet smoking, and add the coriander seeds. The seeds will begin to pop and sizzle; quickly turn the heat off and stir into the soup. Garnish with fresh herbs and serve.
ideas / variations
Coriander seeds are particularly delicate, so be careful not to burn them.
To add heat to the soup, add ½ teaspoon of chili powder.
Use any yellow lentils — ideally moong (small yellow), but masoor (orange), channa or toor (flat yellow) will also work.
Instead of water, consider using shrimp or chicken stock — and stirring in chunks of chicken or shrimp at the end.
No cloves? Substitute with a small cinnamon stick, mace flower or 2-3 pods of green cardamom.
Replace coriander seeds with cumin seeds if you like.