This soup may be the result of cooking too many Yotam Ottolenghi recipes over the years and the fact that I now love to add specialty Middle Eastern ingredients to all of my vegetable dishes. Or it came about because I needed to exercise some pseudo painterly inclinations and play with bright colors and pure aesthetics while stuck inside during a snowstorm. I don't know. Probably, it's some combination of the two.
The upside of all the miserable weather we've had in NYC as of late is that I have been reading a lot -- anything within reach, basically, but cookbooks and poetry in particular. Recently, I stumbled on Cuisine Nicoise: Sun-kissed Cooking From the French Riviera by Hillary Davis (the blogger behind Marche Dimanche). Davis covers Niçoise cooking specifically, which feels both new and oddly familiar, and in so doing, she touches on two of my favorite topics -- rustic French cooking and the French Riviera.
The beauty of this book is startling on many levels. The photography/food styling is simple, elegant, and effortless. The recipes are creative and evocative of both a different time and a different place. And it contains some of the most gorgeous and poetic cookbook writing I have ever read. She describes a seafood lunch at Hotel Belles Rives where F. Scott Fitzgerald worked on "Tender Is The Night." She describes her travels through the local villages, shopping at the local markets, and the recipes and meals that inspired her cooking along the way. (In case you're wondering, yes, there is a recipe for a traditional Salade Niçoise, and no, potatoes and string beans are not traditional ingredients).
This recipe was inspired by the Creamless Creamy Chickpea and Sage Purée from Cuisine Nicoise. I played with the concept of a blended chickpea soup until it took a shape of its own, quite altered from the original. But mentioning the original gives me an excuse to rave about Davis's cookbook and so here we are.
The most surprising thing about this soup is that it actually tastes good. I'm being candid here -- it's such a confluence of seemingly contradictory flavors that I was a little concerned about the end result. But the subtle flavors meld together into a mellow smoky-sweet bisque. For the harissa, you are welcome to use any brand you like but I chose the Mina Mild Harissa for its subdued flavor and gorgeous color. (You can check out the other flavors here: http://www.casablancafoods.com/index.php?/).*
I love that it's a fresh interpretation of something tired and tried, like the squash-sage pairing (or even squash-sage-hazelnut). Squash and sage is a favored combination because it works but the addition of harissa and chickpeas here offers a nuanced experience.
We're still a few weeks away from spring -- stay warm.
Winter Squash and Chickpea Soup w/Sage, Harissa, and Hazelnuts
Serves 4 generously
1 kabocha or butternut squash (approx. 2-3 lbs.)
1 cup dried or 2 cans chickpeas
1 bay leaf
1 tbsp avocado oil (or other cooking oil)
1 red onion, chopped
4-5 sage leaves, rolled tightly and sliced into thin strips
1 tsp. fresh thyme
1 garlic clove, minced
4-6 cups chickpea cooking liquid or vegetable stock (or water)
1 lemon, juiced
garnish: 1/4 cup harissa, 1/2 cup whole hazelnuts, raw, 8 sage leaves
olive oil, for frying sage leaves
sea salt and black pepper
If using dried chickpeas, soak the chickpeas overnight. Drain and rinse well. In a large soup pot, cover the chickpeas with an inch or two of cold water, add in 1 bay leaf, and bring to a boil. Simmer over medium heat for about an hour to an hour and a half or until tender. Season with 1/2 tsp of sea salt. If you're not cooking the soup right away, store the chickpeas in their cooking liquid in the fridge for a few days. Otherwise, drain the chickpeas and reserve the cooking liquid but discard the bay leaf. If using canned chickpeas, drain the beans and rinse them well. Discard canning liquid.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Peel and slice the squash into 1-inch cubes. Drizzle with avocado oil (or other cooking oil) and season lightly with sea salt and black pepper. Roast for about 35 to 40 minutes or until soft and lightly browned, stirring halfway.
In a medium skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of avocado oil over medium high heat. Sautee the onion for a few minutes until translucent and fully cooked through. Add garlic, sage, and thyme and sautee for another minute or two. Add the cooked chickpeas to the pan and heat them through.
Blend the chickpea mixture and the roasted squash together with 4 to 6 cups of chickpea cooking liquid and/or vegetable stock. The amount of liquid you need will depend on how thick you'd like your soup to be.
Pour the blended soup into a large pot and cook over low heat until it comes to a gentle simmer. Stir in the juice of 1 lemon and season with additional sea salt and black pepper, to taste.
Toast the hazelnuts in a skillet over medium heat for about 5 to 10 minutes or until they're fragrant and the skin starts to crack. Transfer the roasted hazelnuts to a clean kitchen towel and allow them to cool. Then gather the towel into a little bundle and massage the hazelnuts to remove the skin. Most, though not all, of the skin will flake off. Once peeled, roughly chop the hazelnuts.
Fry 8 fresh sage leaves in very hot olive oil for a few seconds to crisp them up. Remove them with a slotted spoon or spatula to a paper towel and sprinkle with sea salt.
Portion the soup into four bowls (or more, depending on the amount of stock and squash you used). Swirl a tablespoon of harissa into each bowl of soup and top each bowl with two fried sage leaves and a few toasted hazelnuts. Serve.
Suggested Shortcut: Instead of 1 cup dried chickpeas, use 2 cans of chickpeas. Roast the squash, onions, sage, and thyme together in the oven. Blend everything together with 4 to 6 cups of vegetable stock (or water) and proceed with seasoning and garnish as above.
Notes: If you don't want to use squash, feel free to swap carrots or sweet potatoes or any other root vegetable. Please don't buy the pre-sliced squash -- it's bad for the environment and unnecessary. Buy a whole squash and break it down yourself with Food52's help. Be careful when reheating the soup because it has a tendency to bubble and boil.
* Full Disclosure: From time to time, I may mention products on the blog but all opinions expressed are my own. I will not promote a product I do not like and/or use in my own household. In this instance, I created a recipe with Mina Mild Harissa before the kind folks at Mina reached out to me.