October 16, 2019

For me, Tuscany is a place where time slows down and afternoons stretch out like golden pathways leading toward long, soul-nourishing meals. In the United States, my Tuscany is Sonoma County.

My friend Zepporah Glass first brought me to Sonoma. In 2002, before the dot-com revolution drove property values through the roof, she bought a tear-down on 40 acres outside of the hippie town of Occidental. Glass is 30 years older than me but when it comes to friendship, I see her free spirit, not her age. She was born in Bergen-Belsen, Poland, to refugees who survived concentration camps, then moved to San Francisco with empty pockets and opened a liquor store that eventually became a thriving real estate business, which Glass eventually ran. Driven by her insatiable curiosity and empathy, Glass studies Arabic in her spare time to better communicate with the Syrian refugees she befriended while volunteering in Greece at the height of the migrant crisis.

I met Glass after leaving a Florentine graduate school with a master’s in Italian Jewish Studies, a degree about as useful as a glass hammer. She was working on a short documentary about Jewish Italian partisans during World War II. Through Los Angeles circles, she met my mother, who then introduced her to me. With my knowledge of Italy’s language and Jewish history, I helped craft the editing and ultimately presented the film to an audience in Turin. Our friendship has been one of the great blessings of my life.

For years, Glass has opened up her beautiful, Japanese-style minimalist house in Sonoma to me as if it were mine. Some of my book was written in her light-filled living room, flanked by walls of windows that look out to majestic redwoods and the Pacific fog that creeps around them “on little cat feet,” as poet Carl Sandburg wrote.

At Glass’ Sonoma home, time stops. I never feel hurried or rushed. In other words, it’s the perfect place to make soup. So when I saw a kabocha squash sitting on her counter, my usual hesitation to cook with this hard-to-cut gourd vanished. I baked the whole thing until it was soft, and then scooped out the creamy orange flesh. It was so easy, I just needed to be in a calm state to try it. I omitted carrots from the soffritto, and piled on the cooling flavors of celery, leeks, green onions and black pepper to temper the sweetness of the kabocha.

 When I saw a kabocha squash sitting on the counter, my usual hesitation to cook with this hard-to-cut gourd vanished.

I’ve enjoyed adding different types of squash to the soup, such as delicata. But if you prefer, you can keep it simple. It tastes, as soup is supposed to taste, like love.

Sonoma Squash Soup

1 medium kabocha squash
1 medium delicata squash, optional
1⁄4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large leeks, finely sliced, white and light green parts only
4 celery ribs, finely chopped
8 to 10 green onions, finely sliced, white and green parts only
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
4 to 6 cups No-Chop Chicken Broth (recipe follows) or veggie broth
1 to 2 teaspoons kosher salt
60 to 80 grinds of the pepper mill
Chopped flat-leaf parsley, mint and/or cilantro, for garnish
Toasted pine nuts (directions follow) for garnish, optional

Roast the squash:
Turn oven to 350°F.

Place squash on baking sheet or piece of aluminum foil so it doesn’t mess up the oven. (No need to preheat oven; squash can go in as oven heats.) Cook about an hour or until both are very soft. The delicata squash will be done first, so remove it first or leave it in. It doesn’t matter as long as nothing burns. Allow squash to cool.

Cut open each squash. Remove the seeds and use a spoon to scoop out the flesh. Set aside.

For the soffritto:
Heat stockpot over medium heat and for a few minutes.

Add olive oil, onion, leeks, celery, green onions and garlic and sauté for at least 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Lower heat and sauté until golden brown, another 10 to 20 minutes.

Add roasted squash and mix thoroughly.

Finish the soup:

Add chicken broth to the pot, starting with 4 cups and gradually adding more until the desired consistency is reached. Use wooden spoon or potato masher to break up the squash pieces, if needed. Texture should be somewhat thick .

Add salt and freshly ground pepper. Lots of pepper will temper the sweetness of the squash and harmonize flavors. 

Cover and turn the heat to low. Simmer for an hour or longer, tasting for salt and pepper.

Cool soup to make it more flavorful.

Reheat to serve. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with herbs and pine nuts, if using.

Serves 8 to 10.

No-Chop Chicken Broth
3 pounds chicken necks and backs (if necks and backs are unavailable, use wings and legs)
2 whole onions
4 to 5 whole garlic cloves
3 whole carrots
3 to 4 celery stalks
2 bay leaves
5 to 6 peppercorns
1 large handful flat-leaf parsley
Kosher salt

Place all ingredients in a stockpot and add enough water to cover. (No need to chop anything.)

Bring water to a boil, cover and simmer slowly for at least a couple of hours or all day. Skim off any unappealing foam.

Let cool.

Season well with salt. If not tasty, add more salt. (see note)

Once cooled, it can be refrigerated. If desired, skim off fat the next day.

Makes 3 quarts.

Note: Broth is bland unless salt is added; it takes more salt than you think. I make a batch of broth and freeze it for future use, without any salt. Then I adjust salt as broth is used, per recipe.

Variations: Here are possible add-ins and what they offer:

• Any other root vegetables, such as potatoes, turnips and rutabagas, for richer flavor.

• Dill. This is a favorite with Jewish chicken soup makers.

• Parsnips. They add a sweet, earthy flavor (recommended if making matzo ball soup).

• Beef knuckle marrow bones, for depth of flavor.

Toasted Pine Nuts
Toasted pine nuts make a great garnish for a variety of dishes ranging from quinoa to spaghetti squash primavera. Toast them by heating a dry pan over medium heat, and then tossing raw pine nuts onto the pan. Be very careful: They burn easily if not attended. Shake the pan every so often so they don’t burn and toast evenly on both sides. They will become golden brown in about 5 minutes.

Elana Horwich is the author of “Meal and a Spiel” the founder of the Meal and a Spiel cooking school. Buy the book on Amazon here. Learn more at her website here.

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