The instructor was an impeccable chef named Bernie-Anne Ezekiel and on top of her funny, friendly and uplifting personality she was great in that she invested attention and time in her students, doing her best to help cultivate their unique talents in the kitchen... and she herself too had a knack for finding them.
I remember first impressing her by baking an Italian artisan bread known as focaccia; a delicious bread similar in texture to pizza and flavoured with olives and rosemary. While I didn't quite enjoy baking at the time — preferring instead the manlier cooking applications to impress a girl I had a slight crush on — she insisted that I practice with it as much as possible, having a hunch that I would become the star baker for the class.
In spite of my mild allergy to activating yeast — which I kept secret because I was one of those typical guys who loved to pretend they had no such weaknesses — I spent a great deal of time practicing breads at home.
They were often devoured by my family with annoying enthusiasm once out of the oven but I was never at all satisfied with their end results.
Eventually, I gave up on the artisan breads, much to my instructor's chagrin, feeling that it was not at all fun to bake anymore. My excuse at the time was that I wasn't feeling challenged enough. Feel free to roll your eyes at that. So Bernie-Ann then suggested I practice creating different kinds of pureed soups.
Soups were never my strong suit. Even now as an experienced chef I shy away from creating more rustic or traditional Newfoundland soups for the restaurant where I practice my craft, preferring to leave them to our older cook, Sophie, who has a talent for them.
Bernie-Anne was a very convincing woman though and her confidence in me gave me the much-needed confidence in myself. So I delved into recipes for seafood chowder, roasted red pepper puree, potato and leek soup and just about any other unique soup that you'd rarely ever find or even hear about around The Bay.
Despite having burned a pot of corn chowder, burning my forearm from wrist to elbow with spilled French onion soup and wasting what I can only assume was a small fortune worth of groceries on failures, I began excelling at them.
A few students in the cafeteria had even begun asking if I was the one who had prepared the soup for that day, which made me smile from one little ear to the other.
One puree soup in particular captured the hearts and taste buds of my fellow classmates. Looking for a challenge, I resolved to put a unique spin on the next soup that I'd be instructed to make that week. As luck would have it, that soup turned out to be what is now my signature puree.
Akin to a pumpkin, a butternut squash resembles one that has been somehow stretched out and lightened. After cutting it in half and peeling it, similar to the way one peels a turnip, one can immediately see the gorgeous orange flesh inside.
When this flesh is roasted or simmered it is delicious in and of itself and goes great as a side dish for any meal. But is absolutely amazing when made into a pureed soup.
The following is the recipe for a soup that I guarantee you'll enjoy eating as well as preparing.
Bacon Butternut Squash Soup
1 large butternut squash
1/4 block of cream cheese
1/3 pack of lean bacon
1/3 litre of chicken or turkey stock
1 tbsp. of thyme
1 pinch each of salt and pepper
2 tbsp. brown sugar
Preheat your oven to 350 degrees Celsius.
Cut the butternut squash in half, widthwise and using a sharp knife, peel away the rind. Scoop the innards and seeds out of the hollow part in the centre and discard along with the rind. Cut the squash into cubes or chunks roughly 2 inches by 2 inches in diameter.
Place the squash in a small roaster and add about 2 cups of broth.
Roast for approx. 20 minutes or until the squash is tender all the way through.
Remove from oven and let stand to cool.
While the squash cools, dice your bacon into small pieces (bits) and fry in a medium sized pan on medium heat until crispy. It's important not to discard the rendered grease, as this will add substantial flavour to the soup later on.
Using a blender, food processor or emersion blender, blend your squash with all other ingredients (aside from the bacon) one at a time until the mixture looks smooth and creamy. It’s best to add the stock last, however, along with the drippings from the roaster as you may want to add more or less of it to ensure the puree isn't too thin or thick.
The desired consistency is similar to that of tomato soup when finished.
Finally, add your bacon bits to the mixture and heat it on medium low in a large saucepan for approx. 10 minutes or until the desired temperature has been reached, stirring frequently.
When the time came to present this soup to Bernie-Anne I knew that she would immediately recognize the difference in colour from that of the original recipe.
Everyone in the class usually tried to stick to the recipe as accurately as possible in order to avoid a negative result and I was a bit concerned about that as well, until I tasted it.
I presented Chef with the bowl of bacon butternut squash soup garnished with a mint leaf and bit the inside of my bottom lip from the tension. She did indeed first comment on the lighter colour of my soup and I told her sheepishly that I had added a small amount of cream cheese along with a couple other small changes.
Knowing that I was eager for her opinion and being playful as she was, she made a small show of plunging her spoon slowly into the bowl and seemingly overanalyzing every small detail to build the suspense before taking her first mouthful. When she tasted it, her eyes lit up and she instantly made the sound every cook loves to hear most.
She proclaimed my creation to be delicious and polished off the entire bowl.
It was one of the proudest and most glorious moments for me as a young cook because I had managed to turn what was previously a weakness into strength and impressed a chef whom I deeply admired for her culinary prowess.
Since then this soup has been my trump card in most restaurants that I've had a bit of creative license in and also my go-to soup for impressing people that need to be impressed, such as the family of my ex-fiancé.
I invite you all to try cooking this soup for yourselves at home or any other variation of butternut squash soup that you may find online or in any cookbooks.
In my opinion, butternut squash is very much underused and underappreciated here in Newfoundland and that is a shame. I've often used roasted butternut squash as an addition to a turkey jiggs dinner more than once with amazing results!
But... that sounds like a good topic for another article.