Curried summer squash soup
Sometimes it seems that recipes evolve like the old party game called "Gossip," in which one person makes a simple statement to the person next to him, who passes it on to the next person and so on down to the end of the line, where it usually ends up in hilariously altered form. "Four score and seven years ago" becomes "My Ford has seven doors and a Yugo." Or something like that.
It all started with an article in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on Aug. 6, featuring an offbeat Japanese item called yuba - fresh bean-curd skin skimmed from the top of simmering soy milk and hung out to dry in tender sheets. I was intrigued by San Francisco restaurateur Daniel Patterson's lyrical description - "The flavor was mildly sweet and nutty, and the texture was a revelation: simultaneously tender and chewy, unlike anything I had ever experienced" - but there was no real chance that I'd be picking up an order of fresh yuba in Louisville in time for dinner.
One of Patterson's recipes, though, grabbed me and wouldn't let go: It was a simple, savory soup of fresh summer squash with onions and lemongrass and aromatic infusions of coconut milk and curry, blended and strained into a smooth puree and finished with fresh yuba cut into tiny bite-size bits. Tender and chewy texture? Why not substitute al dente soup pasta? It wouldn't be the same, of course, but this soup caught my fancy, and I wanted it for dinner immediately. A few more quick changes - a little garlic joined the onions and lemongrass, and I held back some of the squash as tiny dice to float in the finished soup, adding yet another texture variation. I substituted scallions for the suggested cilantro garnish, which struck me as a little too potent a flavor for this subtle soup, and the dish was done ... not exactly the same as Mr. Patterson's invention but certainly inspired by it. Yuba or no.
INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)
1/2 cup (120g) sweet onion, sliced thin
1. Peel and slice the onion; peel and mince the ginger and lemongrass (or, if you prefer, do as I did and use dried minced lemongrass from Penzeys Spices). Slice about two-thirds of the summer squash thin and cut the remainder into 1/4-inch dice.
2. Heat the peanut oil over medium-high heat in a soup pot or saucepan and sautee the minced vegetables with the salt and dried red-pepper flakes, cooking until the onions wilt and turn translucent. Stir in the curry powder (use a quality Indian curry powder rather than grocery-store spice-jar brands if possible), and continue cooking the onions and spices for a moment or two.
3. Stir in the sliced squash (take care to reserve the diced squash until later), the coconut milk (I used "light" coconut milk from a can to save a few calories' worth of saturated fat) and 1 1/2 cups of water. Cover, reduce heat to very low, and simmer until the squash is tender, about 10 minutes.
4. Blend the soup using a stick or stand blender; then press it with the back of a wooden spoon through a strainer (or chinois, if you have one) to make a very smooth puree. This step isn't absolutely necessary, but it makes a beautifully velvety textured soup that contrasts nicely with the gently toothy bits of pasta and the tender tiny dice of squash. Put the puree back in the soup pot and add the reserved diced squash, continuing to cook over very low heat until the squash bits are tender; this shouldn't take more than 5 minutes or so.
5. While the soup is simmering, bring salted pasta water to a boil and cook your pasta. I ran across an unusual shape called "Mista" ("mixed") that appeared to be made up of inch-long lengths of spaghetti, linguine, fettuccine and other long pasta broken into short pieces; their size and texture made them a good substitute for the somewhat similar size pieces of yuba called for in The Times' recipe. But just about any soup pasta like orzo would do, or you might try breaking fettuccine into short lengths. When the pasta is done, drain it - try to plan your timing so it will be ready just about the same time as the squash dice get tender - and stir the pasta into the soup. Check seasoning and serve, garnished if you wish with chopped fresh cilantro (as the magazine's recipe suggested) or scallions (which seemed to me to be a somewhat better flavor match with this variation).
MORE ABOUT YUBA:
According to the Patterson article, fresh yuba should be available at Asian markets in larger cities; one mail-order source is Hodo Soy Beanery in San Francisco, (415) 902-5137, http://www.hodosoybeanery.com/. This firm makes yuba fresh and ships it the day it is made, by overnight express in an insulated ice box. A company representative told me that a three-sheet package costs $7.50, but that shipping and handling may be as high as $50, depending on destination.
Dried yuba seems to be a little more readily available at Asian markets, although expert friends tell me that the texture of reconstituted dried yuba is considerably different from fresh. Here's a link to one online source, The Oriental Pantry in Acton, Mass., which offers a seven-ounce package for $2.19 plus shipping. If your E-mail software breaks this long link over more than one line, you may have to put it back together to make it clickable:
Want to make your own? One of our FoodLovers Discussion Group participants says it's easy to do, starting with fresh soybeans to make soy milk, which can then be simmered to produce the fresh yuba skin:
Finally, The New York Times article by Daniel Patterson, titled "The Way We Eat; I Can't Believe It's Tofu," is online in the newspaper's archives at
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Thursday, Aug. 17, 2006
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