art_of_simple_food_book_jacketAs part of our ongoing effort to try new (and non-cream-based) soups this winter, we once again turned to Alice Waters’ Art of Simple Food this week.  Big surprise, right?  The book has quickly become our go-to source for recipes that are straightforward, tasty and loaded with unprocessed ingredients.

In response to the increasingly chilly weather, we found ourselves drawn to a recipe for Butternut Squash and White Bean Soup – a combination that sounded hearty and warming, to be sure.  The connection between cooler temperatures and butternut squash gets us every time (as evidenced by those amazing turnovers Elizabeth made for our Fakesgiving dinner), and the addition of white beans promised to thicken the soup while making it that much better for us.

Of course, we couldn’t allow ourselves to be TOO healthy.  A dinner party hosted by our friend Nell resulted in a windfall of spiral-sliced ham that was just begging us to put it to good use – who were we to refuse?  Frankly, we were more than a little surprised that Waters hadn’t thought to suggest the addition of ham, bacon, or some other salty meat product as one of her handy-dandy “variations” that accompany most of her basic recipes.

Ingredients, preparation and delicious results after the jump.

Waters begins her recipe with a good long soak – for the beans, of course.  She recommends a cup of cannellini, navy, or other white beans, soaked overnight to prepare them for usage.

rinsed-cannelliniSo what do I do?  Buy a can of cannellini from Trader Joe’s and rinse them thoroughly to clean the beans of their starchy residue.  Not only did I save an entire night of soaking with this step-saver, I didn’t have to worry about simmering the beans for 45 minutes to ensure that they were tender.  Instead, I could simply add the already-tender beans to a pot holding three cups of chicken broth and four cups of water and bring the mixture to a simmer while working on the rest of the soup’s ingredients.

Knowing how difficult it can be to peel and cut up a butternut squash, I was determined to take care of it before I did anything else.  And this specimen lived up to its reputation, resisting the peeler every step of the way.  I took the precaution of sharpening my knife beforehand, so cubing the squash proved easy enough.  By now you’re probably thinking something along the lines of “Brilliant move, genius.  You buy the canned beans to save time and effort, but you don’t think to buy the pre-cut squash?”

I actually considered taking that significant shortcut, but I found that convenience definitely has its price when it comes to butternut squash.  While the whole squash cost me less than $2, I would have paid four times that to buy two bags of pre-chopped squash.  Hardly a savvy approach to shopping when I had the time and the means to cut the squash myself.  Besides…it’s cheating!

So there I was, with my cubed squash ready to go.  I turned my attention back to the recipe and heated two tablespoons of oil in a heavy-bottomed pot.  To the shimmering oil, I added a whole sliced yellow onion (Waters calls for two), a single bay leaf, and a large handful of sage leaves.  I let them cook for about 10 or 15 minutes before adding in the squash.  After another five minutes, the squash cubes were just starting to soften.  At that point, I added in a few handfuls of diced ham chunks and then poured in the broth-and-water combination that the beans were simmering in.  I added a few of my favorite dried spices at this point, in an effort to bring a spicier element to what was shaping up to be a rather sweet soup.  I used a few dashes of paprika, a pinch of cayenne pepper, a half-teaspoon of cumin and my new favorite: dried chipotle chili powder!  The combination really worked well with the saltiness of the ham and the sweetness of the squash.

After bringing the soup to a boil, I let it settle back down to a simmer.  10 or 15 minutes later, the squash was already starting to soften.  I gave it another 5 minutes and then added the cannelini.  From there, it took another 10 minutes to get to the point where we could easily split the squash cubes with a fork.  At that point, we knew the soup was ready to go.  We dished it out and sat down to see if our efforts to expand on Alice Waters’ recipe were worth it.

Success!

Despite the long waiting periods that go into creating (and simmering) a soup like this, it’s a surprisingly easy recipe.  And the addition of the ham really turned what could have been an ‘okay’ soup into an amazing recipe you’ll want to try at home.  If you have the opportunity while the cold weather is whipping around outside, try your hand at a pot of this restorative soup…you’ll be glad you did.