Everyone needs to eat. Not all of us need to cook.
For those who do, though, the urge can feel as visceral as a hunger pang. There are times when weeks fly past without a single chance to really make something. Weeks when nearly every meal is eaten in a restaurant, arrives on the back of a delivery person's bike, or consists of a bowl of Fage with a spoonful of jam mixed in. There's nothing really wrong with any of those options (trust me on the jam thing — it's delicious), but there is something missing.
I love to eat the things I cook, of course, but almost more than that, I love to make them. I find solace in the soothing rhythm of the prep work, my knife slicing gracefully through an onion or pile of herbs. I find comfort in the soft thump my oven makes as I open and close it and delight in the ease that's come into my life since I invested in a thermometer to take the actual temperature inside. I love thinking a bit about what's on hand — this weekend, it was half a squash, a head of garlic, and some cheese — and building a meal around it.
Cooking engages all my senses - I can hear when onions are browning too quickly, smell when cookies need to come out of the oven, see when a soup has come to a boil, or feel when a chicken is done by wiggling its leg in the joint. I can taste a vinaigrette and make it sing by adding a little more honey or a dash of salt.
In order to forget themselves — or, perhaps more accurately, to become so much themselves that no thinking is required — some people meditate, some people run long distances, some people practice yoga. I cook. When I run, I look a bit out of sorts. Legs slightly akimbo, hair flopping out of its bun, red cheeks puffed and sweaty. (It's a bit the same for yoga, to be perfectly honest.) But when I cook, I'm graceful. I'm at my most balletic, my most natural. When I'm cooking, I’m not anything in particular. I just am.
Butternut Squash Soup with Roasted Garlic
1/2 butternut squash, peeled and seeds removed, sliced crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
Leaves from two sprigs of thyme
8 sage leaves (6 whole, two sliced crosswise)
7 cloves garlic, 6 whole and unpeeled, one peeled and chopped
1/2 yellow onion, finely chopped
1 small shallot, finely chopped
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 tbs. mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
Freshly ground black pepper
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil.
Place the sliced squash in a large bowl with the thyme, whole sage leaves, and whole and chopped garlic. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and add a generous amount of salt and pepper. Toss the whole mess with your hands until the squash and garlic cloves are evenly covered in the salt, pepper, and oil.
Spread the squash mixture evenly on the prepared baking sheet. (No need to worry about a single layer, but make sure you don’t have a big pile in the middle or anything.) Roast the squash for 25-30 minutes, until tender and just starting to brown.
Meanwhile, heat a little more olive oil in a 3-quart enameled cast iron pot. Once it’s warm but not hot, add the chopped onion and shallot, as well as some salt. Cook over medium heat until the onions begin to soften. Add the sliced sage and continue to cook just until the onion starts to brown. Turn off the heat.
Once the squash is done, take the whole cloves from the pan and set them aside. Place the rest of the squash mixture in the pot with the onions. Squeeze the roasted garlic from four of the cloves and add those to the pot, too. Sauté for a few minutes over medium heat, then add the chicken stock and cook over medium heat for five minutes more, until the soup just starts bubbling.
Remove the soup from the heat and puree using an immersion blender just until smooth. (You want all the lumps gone, but you want the soup to have texture and body, too. You can also do this, in batches, in a regular blender.)
In a small bowl, mash the remaining two cloves of roasted garlic (take the skins off first, please). Add the mascarpone and a pinch of salt and mix until the garlic is evenly distributed through the cheese.
Serve the soup hot with a dollop of the cheese on top of each bowl. Fried sage leaves would be an excellent touch, too, if you have the time and inclination.
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter.