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My obsessive behavior stems not so much from a love of squash, though I am quite fond of it—both its multi-hued variations (acorn, butternut, spaghetti, calabaza) and its diverse uses (pureed into soups, simply roasted with sea salt, and, for the most momentous of occasions, a three-squash lasagna with fried sage and caramelized chestnuts).
For my most recent bout of obsession, a pureed soup is to blame. Specifically, this soup, the first course of today’s dinner. Here’s the intoxicating description that got me hooked: “The whimsical presentation of this dish gives maximum dramatic effect.” I am a big fan of whimsy and drama. And pureed soup. Obsession was inevitable.
(I do, however, take issue with the recipe’s claim that the dish can be pulled off “with a minimum of last-minute effort.” That’s a bit misleading. True, the dish is easy to assemble once all the parts are on hand. But I might not ever again possess the energy to track down 18 sweet dumpling squash— let alone roast them, scrape them, and repurpose them as adorable serving bowls.)
This is my first Thanksgiving in Chicago. Though it’s not the first Thanksgiving I’ve hosted, it will be the only one at which my parents won’t be showing up with a roasting pan loaded with an Italian-sausage-and-risotto-stuffed turkey and platters bearing such gifts as balsamic-glazed brussels sprouts and turnips whipped with heavy cream. The best I could do over the years was elbow my way onto their Thanksgiving menu with a pureed soup (last year it was potato and fresh artichoke with shaved Parmesan), something green (braised kale and collards with slivered ginger), and, until recently, a Tofurkey.
I’d be lying if I were to say I’m a former vegetarian. I was always one of those fish-eating, leather-boots-loving vegetarian poseurs. This became glaringly obvious in recent weeks as I worked with staff writer Kevin Warwick on his smart, collaborative, multicomponent vegetarian guide. While pondering the points of view of 17 vegetarian, vegan, and veg-friendly Chicagoans, I grew increasingly aware that my longtime (and recently retired) philosophy of abstaining from poultry, pork, and beef had been all over the place. For a time, I had convinced myself that I didn’t eat meat because it was cruel. Then it was because meat ravaged the environment (that was back when I drove a 30-year-old clunker that ran on biodiesel—well aware that the benefits of using locally sourced, petroleum-free fuel were somewhat offset by the noxious plumes emitted by my tailpipe). Most recently, I started living by the mantra that I would eat only what I personally could kill—and then I slowly introduced meat of all stripes to my diet. I suppose you could say I’ve grown more vicious over time.
Still, I continue to view my meat-eating as experimentation. I guess I’m what Slate describes as a flexitarian. I have an unwavering appreciation of vegetarian food, and the vast majority of my meals are pure veg. That habit’s been with me since childhood. I was fortunate to grow up in a household where the vegetable reigned supreme. Meat—red meat in particular—was considered . . . boring. My father is of Lebanese descent, and informed by his mother’s astoundingly deft Middle Eastern cooking he merged his culinary ancestry with a freakishly healthy affinity for juice fasts and raw food. His extremism has mellowed, but his love of vegetables has not. More than anything else, he and I talk about food. My mother, who’s half-Italian, mostly adapted her cooking style to his, but he borrows from her own divine, if at times decadent, culinary heritage.
I’m the benefactor of their kitchen prowess. And while I hope to treat my first turkey (locally sourced from TJ’s Free Range Poultry, I’ll have you know) with the kind of respect they’ve bestowed on theirs over the years, I’m more concerned with that first course—and with the seemingly herculean task of tracking down just two more elusive sweet dumpling squash.
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