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Simple Sides: Wintertime Soup

Image of Butternut Squash, Leek and Apple Soup
By Dennis Linden

Competing schedules in the day-to-day lives of a busy modern family make it difficult to share a home-cooked meal together, but not impossible. In fact, with a little planning, cooking together can become a fun family event and learning opportunity. This feature will focus on providing a child or a group of children, working together under the supervision of an adult, with one uncomplicated, healthy and delicious side dish recipe. The dishes will be centered on seasonal fresh produce items; the recipes will always contain tasks that will allow even the youngest kitchen helper to contribute to the family meal. Parents should always read through each recipe carefully to judge the division of labor based on age and ability as well as to identify where adult attention might be especially needed.
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Many of the recipes presented here will seem very basic -- this is by design. It is hoped that these simple preparations will provide the culinary foundation and confidence to inspire kids to try more challenging recipes as their experience in the kitchen develops. Melissa’s encourages parents to find the time to gather as a family unit at least once a week for a dinner that everyone pitches in to prepare. It’s a wonderful way to teach children some basic cooking skills and, more importantly, cooking with your children will build memories in all of your hearts forever.

Turn a cold February day into some indoor fun with a soup-making lesson for your young kitchen helpers using two of Melissa’s recipe-ready fresh produce products that take the tedium out of preparation without losing any of the field-fresh flavors. The ingredient list of this warming Butternut Squash Soup is kept short and simple with the novice cook in mind, yet it does have enough components to keep your kids engaged and interested. While one could whip up an even simpler version of this soup in a blender with just pieces of the cooked squash, some chicken stock, salt and pepper, where would be the fun or culinary lesson in that? Adding a few more ingredients will give the beginner cook a firsthand experience in how each component will improve the taste of a dish. BTW, tasting several times during the prep of any recipe is essential. Encourage your helpers to do this after the addition of each ingredient in this one—it’s a great habit to start early and do often!

The leek, for instance, is primarily used as a soup flavoring with a deliciously mild onion taste laced with a hint of garlic. The downside is that a fresh whole leek is quite sandy and very labor intensive to prepare. You could direct your young kitchen crew in the multiple rinsing and draining requires of the vegetable throughout the preparation process, which includes peeling, trimming, slicing and then chopping. However, chances are that young eyes are going to start rolling with boredom about halfway into this very tiresome task. Also, since the outer layer of the leek as well as the green top is thrown away, in the end there is almost as much waste as there is useable vegetable! A package of Melissa’s Cleaned and Sliced Leeks, containing only the edible parts of the vegetable carefully sliced into pieces ready for the soup pot, is not only a great solution to a child’s short attention span, it also eliminates waste completely. There will be plenty of kitchen time in the future to learn how to properly prepare a whole leek from scratch; right now the focus should be to instill culinary curiosity while avoiding monotonous tasks that could dampen enthusiasm.

Butternut Squash is one of the most versatile of all the hard squash varieties. Its nutty sweet flavor makes it a favorite ingredient of both home and professional chefs alike. However, before one can enjoy the natural goodness of this squash, the aptly named hard shell must first be peeled, the seeds removed, the squash prepped in some way and then cooked for up to 90 minutes if oven-baked. Melissa’s Peeled & Steamed Butternut Squash is prepped and ready-to-use right out of the package. In fact, the pre-cut cubes are a convenient size for use with the blender called for in this recipe. Like the packaged leeks, no sharp knives are needed to prep the squash and there is no waste to dispose of afterwards. Again, there will be plenty of years ahead to tackle a whole butternut squash if culinary interest is cultivated early with quick and easy recipes at first.

There is still some very basic cutting required in prepping both the Granny Smith apples and onion into chunks that will also fit into the blender. No precision necessary here, so if you have child who is just coming of age in cutting skills, this recipe provides some practice time with the most rudimentary of all cuts – the chop. Both these ingredients also represent two more flavors being added to affect the overall dish; a good opportunity to practice that habit of taste-testing along the way! And for the very young kitchen assistant wanting to be included, there is soup stock and vinegar to measure, as well as the teaspoons of spices to be carefully added in to the mix. Even the smallest of prep tasks can inspire a lifetime interest in the culinary arts at any age!

Last on the ingredient list is the garnish of dark-rye croutons and yet another culinary lesson opportunity! The art of the garnish, even for a dish being served at the family meal, should not be overlooked when cooking with beginners. Beyond the emphasis on making a dish look good enough to eat, so to speak, your kids should be reminded that an edible garnish must be chosen like any other ingredient since its taste that will affect the dish. In this case, the dark rye adds both a crunchy texture and heartiness to both the flavor and appearance of the soup that is a good match with the natural richness of the butternut squash. On the other hand, a few sprigs of fresh parsley garnish might add a splash of color to the presentation, but would also introduce an altogether new flavor to the soup that simply is not needed. The croutons are simple to prepare: spread cubes of bread on a cookie sheet and toast in a 400° oven for a few minutes. The toasted bread will still absorb the soup very quickly and almost melt into the soup – as in another ingredient! So have the kids artfully place a few croutons in the center of each bowl just before serving. Stay warm and enjoy!

Butternut Squash, Leek and Apple Soup
Serves 4-6
Image of Ingredients

2 small Granny Smith Apples, peeled-cored-chopped
1 medium Perfect Sweet Onion, chopped
4 cloves Melissa’s Peeled Garlic
1 package Melissa’s Cleaned & Sliced Leeks
5 packages Melissa’s Peeled & Steamed Butternut Squash
5-6 cups Vegetable Broth
1 teaspoon Salt
1 teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1 teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1 teaspoon Ground Cumin 2 tablespoons Apple Cider Vinegar
Cubes of Crusty Rye Bread, toasted (garnish)

What the kids can do:
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Peel, core and chop the apple into chunks / chop onion into medium pieces.
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In a large bowl mix together thoroughly the apple, onion, garlic, leeks, cubed butternut squash.
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Transfer this mixture to a blender, puree until completely smooth. Add just enough broth to help liquefy ingredients. This process will have to be done in batches – have a large soup pot nearby to pour off each batch.
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Once all blended contents are in the soup pot add in the remaining vegetable broth, spices, salt and vinegar. Simmer on a medium-low flame for 25 minutes, stirring occasionally.

What the supervising adult should do:

Depending on knife skills, oversee the little bit of chopping needed for the apple and onion. Oversee the use of the blender in combining all the ingredients and careful transfer to the soup pot. An adult should also handle dividing the hot soup equally among bowls.
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