Monday, October 20, 2014

Recipe of the Month: Three Sisters Soup

The weekend before last, we went to visit some friends in Falls Church, VA, and took advantage of the opportunity to stop in at the local Penzey's Spices. We became fans of this store while visiting my in-laws in Indianapolis, but there isn't one in our area, so we always make a point of poking our noses in whenever we happen to be in a town that has one. The main reason is to replenish our supply of their excellent Vegetable Soup Base (it may look pricey at $10.85 a jar, but it goes a long way and makes any vegetarian soup more flavorful), but we inevitably take the opportunity to browse, as well, since Penzey's is a fascinating store to visit. They have just about every spice you could name, along with others you almost certainly couldn't, as well as their own signature blends. There are big glass jars and bottles of each spice for sniffing, so you can compare the four different varieties of cinnamon, or try to discern the subtle differences among barbecue spice rubs, or just breathe in the heady aromas of vanilla and lemon extract. You'll also see whimsical displays, such as the scaled-down model of a 1940s kitchen that holds all the baking spices in the Indianapolis store, or the nautical-themed display in the Falls Church store for all the various types of salt, featuring a rowboat converted into a set of shelves.

One of my favorite features at Penzey's is the little recipe cards they provide, free for the taking, next to different spice blends to provide examples of how to use them. On our most recent trip, I picked up an intriguing-looking one called Three Sisters Soup, referring to the classic trio of beans, corn, and squash that Native Americans often grew together as companion plants. Since we already happened to have butternut squash in the garden, corn in the freezer, and beans in the pantry, I thought this would be a good dish to try as soon as the weather started getting chilly.

This recipe, unfortunately, isn't among those archived on Penzey's website, so I can't give it to you here in full, but I'll give you an overview. After soaking and cooking the beans, you bake the winter squash until tender (or use the shortcut I learned from a friend and just microwave it whole for about 20 minutes) and scoop out the flesh. Then, in a big pot, you sauté all the ingredients you'd usually find in a vegetable soup—onions, carrots, celery, garlic—and add the squash, along with some veggie stock (which you can make from the Vegetable Soup Base) and bring it to a boil. Finally, you reduce it to a simmer and add the beans, corn, some herbs (the recipe called for dried, but we used fresh), and two cups of chopped tomatoes, and heat it through.

Those tomatoes, when I first read through the recipe, struck a discordant note in my mind. In general, I'm not a big fan of tomato-based soups, because I feel like the tomato flavor tends to dominate and overwhelm everything else. Tasting the mixture of ingredients in my imagination, I couldn't help thinking that it would probably be better without the tomatoes. But I also make it a general policy not to tamper with a recipe the first time I make it (except maybe to leave out something I truly hate, like olives), so I can taste it in its intended form and decide whether it really needs any changes. So our first batch of Three Sisters Soup was by the book, tomatoes and all.

Alas, I think I should have trusted my instincts. The finished soup was certainly colorful, and the blend of flavors was interesting, but those tomatoes tasted just as wrong in my mouth as they had in my mind. I tried to eat them up first so that I could try to evaluate the rest of the soup without them, but unfortunately, their flavor seemed to have permeated and cast its subtle influence over the whole dish. It wasn't bad, exactly, it just tasted sort of...off. I found myself losing steam as I worked my way through it, and by the end, I was so unenthusiastic that Brian ended up finishing my bowl for me. To be fair, I should note that he actually liked the soup very much in its original form and was happy not only to polish off my portion but also to dispose of all the leftovers. But he also didn't think he'd like it significantly less without the tomatoes, so I think it we make it again, we'll definitely leave them out. (This change also has the benefit of allowing this soup to be made all winter long. Corn, beans, and squash will all keep well in the freezer and pantry, but fresh tomatoes aren't much good once the first frost is past, and Brian and I agreed that substituting canned ones really wouldn't work.)

So Three Sisters Soup will remain in our recipe file for now, but with a note on it to skip the tomatoes. Once we've tried it that way, we'll be able to decide whether it's good enough to earn a place in our regular repertoire of winter dishes. (And if you want to try it yourself, you can find the recipe at your nearest Penzey's store. If there's one anywhere near your regular shopping route, you'll find it worth the trip.)
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