Food & Drink

November 12, 2008

Kerry McCray: Anticipation … is keeping me waiting while everything simmers

I don't know how the Iron Chefs do it. They scurry around Kitchen Stadium, breaking down carcases and turning out multi-course meals in less time than it takes for me to put together my food processor.

I don't know how the Iron Chefs do it.

They scurry around Kitchen Stadium, breaking down carcases and turning out multi-course meals in less time than it takes for me to put together my food processor.

I know, they're professional chefs who have been at it for years. Still, I'm envious. Every time I try to cook something other than grilled cheese in a limited amount of time, I fall on my face.

Take this week's spicy pumpkin soup. It seemed simple, something I could whip up for a late-night, adults-only dinner after the kids went to bed.

I picked the soup, which I found in "The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook," because it just oozed fall. Reading the recipe made me think of crisp weather, leaves turning color, loved ones gathered around the table.

It also screamed sophisticated adult dining, something I was craving after a week of tuna sandwiches (my oldest daughter's favorite) for lunch.

Shopping was easy; most of the ingredients are available at the grocery store. I couldn't find the specific type of whole dried chilies the recipe specified (chipotles or New Mexican), so I used New Mexican chili powder instead.

But by the time I got around to making the soup on a Saturday night, nothing about it seemed easy anymore. We already had endured the standard I-don't-want-to-go-to-bed tricks. It was late and we were starving. I would have killed for a frozen pizza.

But my deadline for this column was looming, so I made the soup. I went outside in the dark — it was raining — and picked the thyme. I fought with my food processor to grind the almonds.

And, just when it seemed nothing else could go wrong, I got to the part of the recipe where it said to simmer the soup for 20 minutes. Was this a joke? There was no way I was going to wait this long for dinner.

The result? Orange, bumpy, bland soup. It wasn't nearly as spicy as I had thought it would be. Even a hefty spoonful of sour cream on top didn't improve it.

Maybe I should have used more chili powder or gone to another store to find the dried chilies. Maybe I should have started earlier. Maybe I should have let the soup simmer longer.

Maybe next time I should just stick to watching "Iron Chef."

Bee staff writer Kerry McCray can be reached at 578-2358 or at

What The Testers Had To Say

I used butternut squash for the added sweetness and only half of the chipotle chili, thinking the soup would be too spicy. The chipotle chili did add a mild smokiness. Using a whole chili would likely have been fine, judging by the mild spiciness of the outcome. I also added about ¼ teaspoon of freshly ground nutmeg and topped each serving with crumbled bacon. My husband gave it an OK. I thought it was great.

— Shirley Cantele, Modesto

Everyone seemed to like the soup. I doubled the recipe and used one large can pumpkin purée and a quart container of chicken stock, along with all the other ingredients. I could not find dried chipotle chilies, so I used the canned variety. I chopped it and stirred it into the soup. The fire from the chili is what made this soup. I do not think the ground almonds made much of a difference. I will most likely leave them out next time. I used half-and-half in place of the milk and cream. Using canned pumpkin was very convenient. However, I think I would prefer to use butternut squash or acorn squash instead — so a bit more sweet. Thinning the sour cream with milk and drizzling it over the top gave a great presentation.

— Sandy Cadra, Oakdale

Toasting and grinding the almonds took a minute, but otherwise, it went together quite quickly. I admit to adding curry to "kick it up," but aside from that, I stuck to the recipe. It was tasty and well-received. I served the soup with warm flatbread, beer and a choice of toppers: chopped scallions, bacon, red chili flakes and shredded sharp cheddar. I'll be taking a pot of this soup to a November potluck!

— Carolyn Conser, Modesto

My husband and I tried this soup last night and we found it to be very good. I used a dried chili called chili de arbol; I couldn't find the chili that the recipe called for.

Anyway, we like the consistency. The flavor was good; the almonds added a little nutty flavor. The bacon and chives added to the flavor.

— Donna Boots, Modesto

We found that the more we ate it, the more we liked it! It really grew on us! It definitely is a filling soup once you add all the goodies, so in the future, I might add an extra can of chicken stock to thin it out a bit. I could not find dried chipotle chilies, so I used three pinches of ground chipotle instead, making it slightly smoky without being overbearing.

— Karin Reenstierna, Modesto

I've made pumpkin soup before and it was quite different from this recipe. I found this recipe very tasty and easy to prepare. I decided to omit the dried chipotle chili and instead I added a good teaspoon of chili powder. I made it a few days before we planned to eat it to allow the flavors to set. I did add extra cream when warming the soup to thin it out a bit. We enjoyed it with some nice grilled sandwiches.

— Debbie Kennedy, Modesto

This is the first soup I've ever made with nuts! I did change a couple things; vegetable broth instead of chicken; no cream, so double the milk; no dried chili, so red pepper flakes sautéed with the onions. The simmer time mellowed out the pumpkin, so when served, it had a full pumpkin flavor without being overpowering. We had the sour cream and chives as topping. This could be a suitable first course for Thanksgiving dinner.

— Sandy Loya, Modesto

This seasonally appropriate dish is delicious! My husband claimed it to be the best soup he has ever had. Granted, he doesn't eat soup often. I opted out of steaming a pumpkin and used purée from a can. I thought the addition of almonds would be strange, but they actually worked. The consistency was more of a hearty chowder than a liquidy soup. The chili added a smoky flavor; I think if you want the soup to live up to its spicy name, you have to add the chili pepper as a topping. The toppings really make the soup.

— Ann Griffith, Modesto

"Spicy Pumpkin Soup" is misnamed. First, it isn't at all spicy, if spicy pumpkin is what you get in a pumpkin pie. Second, it isn't at all spicy if "spicy" means piquant, zesty or hot. "Bland Pumpkin Soup" would be a more appropriate name. Perhaps "Do-It-Yourself Pumpkin Soup" would be equally suitable, for without the toppings, which diners choose to add, the soup would be just bland. After tasting the soup, the people at my table piled on the toppings. I provided all four specified, plus chipotle chili powder. I should add that I could not find dried chipotle peppers in the stores where I shop; so I used two New Mexican chilies, which I'm convinced did absolutely nothing to flavor the soup. This soup does have one virtue. When it is cold, its thyme and onion flavors come through; so if you want a cold soup, make this recipe, chill it and skip all the toppings.

— Ralph Moore, Modesto

Didn't taste as spicy as I thought it would. The sour cream and chives were nice additions.

— Burl Mikesell, Tuolumne

The mixture was too thick to blend, since I had to use a blender for the pumpkin and the onion mixture. I ended up adding an additional ½ cup milk and ½ cup broth with the pumpkin in the blender. It still was a very thick soup with the additional liquid. This soup is VERY mild. I doubled the thyme and added a second chili, which gave it a sweet, smoky flavor, and for a little kick, a teaspoon of ancho chili pepper. We topped our soup with all the toppings and enjoyed with warm croissants and a salad.

— Lisa Moreci, Oakdale

Related content



Entertainment Videos