Thursday, November 3, 2011

Root-Beer Rarebit Soup: Ultimate Soup for Ultimate Soup Weather

So, as you may have heard, New England had a little snow last weekend.

And by a little snow, we mean a foot of wet, heavy stuff that downed large limbs and knocked power out for millions of people in the Northeast. Including us, for about three and a half days. Growing up, I always used to look forward to power outages; they were all about hanging out around the woodstove, playing cards with the family while drinking cocoa by candlelight. Some key details embedded in that sentence: woodstove, which implies heat; drinking cocoa, which implies ability to cook. As long as you have those two things, life goes on pretty much as normal, give or take having to refill the toilet tank manually from the gallons of water you keep specifically for times like this because the well pump runs on electric. As is, our apartment's heat and cook stove both require electricity to run, so we were without both.

So, we decided to revisit the idyllic side of the power going out and headed up to Vermont, after hearing we could be without power for up to a week (as of writing, Western Mass Electric reports that 26% of its customers - over 56,000 people - are still without service, though they have been working flat out since Sunday). We were planning on getting together on Sunday anyhow, to make dinner for Maria's birthday, so we just made a venue change and headed north. Sunday turned out to be a beautiful day - they mostly have been since the storm - clear blue skies and snow melting like it was going out of style. Ironically, the power in Vermont came back on Sunday afternoon, shortly after we got up there. We heard later that some friends from Northampton actually drove up to Brattleboro and rented a motel room to stay warm after returning home to no heat from a brisk weekend in New York, spent mostly outside.

Stopping by Mom's on the way home on Monday afternoon (my heat wasn't on, but it was at school, so they planned to be open Tuesday), she pressed some of the soup she had just made on me, and that soup has pretty much been the template for this week: Pumpkin. Cheddar. Beer.
It sounds like an obviously genius idea upon hearing it; the ultimate soup for the ultimate soup weather. Since then, I've been adapting it to accommodate the variety of sweet winter vegetables that predominate this time of year. Both recipes are adaptations of Mollie Katzen's "Pumpkin Rarebit Soup" from the classic Hippie-American cookbook The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

Our CSA farm's winter squash crop, planted on the banks of the Connecticut River, was drowned by flooding during Hurricane Irene. However, this year marked their best harvest of sweet potatoes ever, so sweet potatoes have been doing double duty for us in many of the places that we would typically use squash (unfortunately, they don't make very good jack o'lanterns). We offered to cook dinner for some friends in Northampton, with whom we stayed two nights after their power came back online before ours, to thank them for their hospitality.
They let us know that in addition to our sweet potatoes, they had a whole mess of leeks and parsnips they weren't sure what to do with, so they went into the soup, too. Pretty much any sweet fall vegetables will work: winter squash, sweet potatoes, parsnip, carrot, turnip, etc. I picked up a bunch of the perennial favorite Smuttynose Old Brown Dog, a brown ale which balances well a nutty caramel maltiness with a crisply hopped flavor and which actually has its origins in Northampton, to go in and with the soup. I also amped it up a little with the addition of my old friend chipotle and came up with a soup that merited three bowlfuls from at least one diner.
Sweet fall vegetables. Cheddar. Beer.

Root-Beer Rarebit Soup

vegetarian, serves 4-6
  • 1 leek, halved and cut into ½" thick half-rounds OR 1 small onion, medium dice
  • 1 Tblsp. butter
  • 1 qt. mixed sweet fall vegetables, cut into about ½" cubes ← you can also use roasted vegetables here for a quicker soup
  • 1½ c. (12 oz.) beer (I used a brown ale, Katzen recommends a lighter ale, you know what you like)
  • 1½ c. water or stock (vegetable or chicken)
  • 1 heaping cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
  • 1 tsp ground, dried chipotle OR 1 canned chipotle in adobo, minced (optional)
  • salt and pepper to taste
In a 3 qt. or larger soup pot, melt butter and begin cooking leeks or onions over med-low heat. Lightly salt. I like to start this process, then start prepping the rest of the vegetables just to make myself patient and give the leeks/onions enough time to cook soft. Add the vegetables. If you're using roasted vegetables, you can add the beer/stock/water immediately. If using fresh, you want to give them about 15 minutes to cook before adding liquid. Once the vegetables have started to get soft (almost immediately for roasted, and about 30 min for fresh), blend until smooth. Add grated cheese and stir until melted and combined. Add chipotle, if using, adjust salt and pepper and serve, ideally with more of whatever beer went into the soup and with a bread robust enough to match (Hungry Ghost Bread, which bakes in a wood-fired oven was one of the first and only places open on Sunday. They had lines out the door for hours.)

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