If I had to pick my two most favorite months of the year in Charleston it would be October and February. The humidity finally drops some in October, giving us the ability to enjoy being out without suffocating. I sneak in any moment I can feeling the tall grass under my feet. I also spend more time than usual at the dock watching the porpoises huddle and play now that less boats are out now that summer is over.
February is just magical here. The light is crisp and electric. The cold finally reaches us for a few days and we gather friends around the fireplace. I love the cold nippy winds that we get for a few days. A barely there couple of weeks of wintry weather.
Lately, while the temperatures are still hot enough to have us in short sleeves and flip flops, the numerous rain showers and stronger winds put me in a definite Fall-ish mood. One that calls for hot soups and warm apple crisps.
This Acorn Squash and Sweet Potato Soup is one of those I want to have on repeat this Fall and Winter. It’s been decided by both Bill and myself after the first couple of spoons. Not only was it tasty, it was also the kind that does not need much else but a nice piece of country bread smeared with a dab of butter and sprinkle of grey salt.
Aside from the addition of acorn squash, the base of sweet potato soup is directly from Virginia Willis' latest cookbook "Basic to Brilliant Y’all – 150 Refined Southern Recipes and Ways to Dress Them Up for Company". A book she came to share in Charleston last week and which release was celebrated (among other events) in a Sunday Dinner style dinner at Heirloom Book Company. The setting was perfect, a cookbook store with wall to wall vintage and current editions.
The table setting was fun and the company engaging. In our proper form, Bill and I made fast friends with the couple next to us, visiting Charleston on their anniversary. They had just stepped into the bookstore a few hours prior to the event, completely on a whim and purchased a couple of tickets for that dinner. They did not know the book or Virginia but they "got" the spontaneity that defines Charleston.
Why celebrating Virginia in person in Charleston? Because the book was photographed here. In my studio to be exact and also on our dock where we had Virginia hold a very fiesty crab at sunset. The crew gathered in my home for 10 days and we got to work on some pretty delicious recipes. Curried Chicken Wings with Peach Dipping Sauce. Endive and Roquefort Slaw. Louisiana Duck Gumbo. Meringue Pillows with Strawberries and Cream.
Sunday’s dinner showcased some of my favorites such as the Roasted Tomato Soup and the Chocolate Monkey Bread and new ones like the Garlic and Sausage Stuffed Pork Loin. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to congratulate Virginia on her hard work and dedication to develop and write recipes so that people like me, get the chance to convey emotions and visions one level deeper.
I have been blessed to work with pretty special cookbook authors and their publishers these last few years and each time. This project where a whole team came together, fierce with dedication and love and pride of their work, made me grow as an artist and as a person. I walked away with a greater love of my profession as photographer. A greater dedication also. And let’s face it, hundreds of new favorite recipes…!
Virginia’s recipes are no different. They completely speak to me. Virginia has the perfect ability to balance her formal French training as a chef with her Southern roots. A little irreverence against ennui thrown in for good measure and you have the perfect blend: a cookbook compiling easy and intermediate recipes, interesting and fun and with a Brilliant twist that is worth exploring each time.
Take her Sweet Potato Soup for example. The basic recipe is pretty darn tasty as it is if you ask me. A blend of sweet potatoes, Vidalia onions, thyme and curry. The "brilliant" possibility? A dollop of rum spiked whipped cream. Yep. And that my friends, is indeed brilliant. It absolutely makes you smile… I did vary mine a bit by adding acorn squash and sprinkling a bit of thyme and cracked black pepper on ours too. Recipes are canvas for you to enjoy your time in the kitchen and Virginia’s are perfect for that.
When I was growing up, each meal would start with a bowl of soup. Nothing fancy. My mom would make the tastiest soups from the simplest vegetable combinations. Zucchini, onion, pumpkin, carrots, turnips. The quantity for each varied every single time which made the soup slightly different every time also. She learned that from her mother. She passed it on to me.
I carried that tradition a little further by making soups that my grandmother would surely dubbed as "fancy" if she were still alive. I never grew up with single ingredient soups beside Soupe a l’Oignon. Always a mix. Even our family trademark, Soupe Au Pistou is a medley of Provencal fragrances.
Nowadays, I am usually drawn to soups where one ingredients really shines. Mushroom soup, roasted tomato soup, pumpkin soup, smoked corn soup, this crazy good lima bean bisque from my pal Tami. The multi ingredient ones I now stir are some we never made when I was a kid, such as Pho, Tom Yum, Avgolemono.
And this fragrant and silky Acorn Squash & Sweet Potato Soup. I could not let go of my DNA apparently and had to throw in another ingredient! Acutally, I picked up gorgeous mini acorn squash at the farmers market as well as a myriad of other vegetable and I have to cook the majority before my upcoming trips to Kansas City and Seattle this week.
This soup is good company. A warm bowl of soul and a whole lot of comfort.
Acorn Squash & Sweet Potato Soup, adapted from Virginia Willis' Sweet Potato Soup in "Basic To Brilliant Ya’ll"
Serves 6 to 8
2 mini acorn squash, peeled and cubes (about 3 cups)1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon + 1 tablespoon olive oil, divided
1 sweet onion, coarsely chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
3 medium sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
9 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1/4 cup maple syrup
3 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 375F.
Cut the acorn squash in halves. Place them in a baking dish, drizzle with one teaspoon olive oil and roast for about 20-30 minutes. Let cool. Peel the skin off and reserve the flesh.
Heat the remaining tablespoon oil in a large heavy soup pot set over medium high heat. Add the onion and curry powder and cook until the onion is almost translucent, about 4 minutes. Add the sweet potatoes, stock, maple syrup, thyme and nutmeg and the flesh from the acorn squash.
Bring the soup to a boil, reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, until the potatoes are tender, about 30 minutes. Remove the thyme sprigs. Let the soup cool a little.
Puree the soup until smooth with an immersion blender or a blender/food processor.
Reheat the soup before serving and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary.
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons dark rum
1/4 teaspoon lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon freshly chopped thyme
freshly ground pepper
In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whip the heavy cream to soft peaks. Add the rum and lemon zest and continue whipping until firm. Use a dollop on top of the soup and sprinkle with fresh thyme and chopped thyme.