- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

During the past few freezing days, I’ve served bowls of piping hot soup, both at family meals and when entertaining.

Among them was a batch of butternut squash soup that I offered as the opener for a dinner for three thirtysomething friends, who are all single, career-obsessed and who miss home-cooked meals.

The next night, I made this butternut squash soup with toasted hazelnuts and rosemary as the centerpiece of a family supper, along with a crusty baguette and a green salad.

A few days later, we asked an out-of-town friend to come for an impromptu dinner, and I spotted a little of the bright orange soup in the back of the fridge. There wasn’t much left, so I ladled it into espresso coffee cups and presented it as an unexpected appetizer, the way restaurants do when waiters bring out a small surprise hors d’oeuvre.

I love this new soup, not only for its versatility, but also for its ease of preparation.

To make it, I simply sauteed chopped leeks and cubed squash (purchased peeled and seeded at the supermarket) in butter, then seasoned the mixture with dried rosemary and cayenne pepper. After the vegetables were simmered in stock, they were fork-tender and ready to be pureed.

A swirl of creme fraiche countered the sweetness of the squash, and a garnish of toasted hazelnuts provided a bit of crunch.

This delectable potage can precede a main course of roasted chicken, pan-grilled lamb chops or baked ham. If you use it as the star attraction of a light lunch or supper, offer a favorite salad or sandwich as a simple accompaniment.

Looking at the calendar for next month, I see we have several sets of overnight company scheduled for visits, and the butternut soup is at the top of my list for easy and satisfying winter dishes to serve our guests.

Butternut squash soup with toasted hazelnuts and rosemary

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 cups chopped leeks, white and light green parts only (about 2 medium leeks)

8 cups peeled and diced (1-inch cubes) butternut squash (about 21/4 pounds peeled squash)

1 teaspoons dried rosemary, crushed

Kosher salt

2 pinches (about 1/16 teaspoon) cayenne pepper

4 cups chicken broth

1 cup creme fraiche, divided (see notes)

cup hazelnuts, toasted and chopped (see notes)

6 fresh rosemary sprigs or 3 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf parsley for garnish, optional

Heat butter in a large, heavy pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add leeks and cook, stirring, until they are softened and translucent, 2 to 3 minutes.

Add squash, and stir and cook 3 minutes more. Sprinkle vegetables with rosemary, 1 teaspoon salt and cayenne pepper, and stir to coat. Add broth and bring mixture to a simmer.

Cook, uncovered, at a simmer, until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes.

Puree mixture in a food processor or blender or in a food mill. Return it to pan in which it was cooked and whisk in half of the creme fraiche.

Taste soup and season with salt, if needed. Soup can be prepared 2 days ahead. Cool, cover and refrigerate. Reheat over low heat, stirring.

To serve, ladle soup into four large or six medium soup bowls. Garnish each with a generous dollop of remaining creme fraiche and sprinkle with chopped hazelnuts.

If desired, garnish each serving with a rosemary sprig or some chopped parsley. Makes 6 servings as a first course or 4 servings as a main course.

Notes: Creme fraiche, a thick French cream similar to sour cream, is available in most groceries.

If you can’t find it, whisk 1/3 cup sour cream into 1 cup heavy cream in a mixing bowl and let stand at room temperature until mixture is as thick as sour cream, 6 hours or overnight. Store, covered, in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.

To toast hazelnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and place in a preheated 350-degree oven until lightly browned and fragrant, about 8 minutes. Watch carefully. Remove and place nuts in a kitchen towel and rub off as much of the skins as possible.

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