Roasted Kabocha and Fennel Soup with Creme Fraiche and Candied Pumpkin Seeds

This week’s posts are a tribute to the fine art of the birthday dinner which is less about whether you served great food and more about whether you did it without stressing out and being trapped in the kitchen all night. My mistakes are usually the product of too many dishes, too little planning and too much wine too early in the process.

For the birthday dinner I did over this weekend, I really didn’t want to fuck this up. My friend, Carolina, has been so supportive since I started posting about food and you have no idea how encouraging those comments are when you put yourself out there with something you love. I wanted to make her a kickass meal to let her know how much I appreciate her. But I also wanted to hang out with her. So, I came up with a plan where I could balance great food with options to cook ahead that made it easier to bring it all together on the day. Here’s what I came up with.

Carolina’s Birthday Dinner for 6 adults and 3 kids

Roasted Kabocha and Fennel Soup with Candied Pumpkin Seeds

Lamb Meatballs in Spiced Tomato Sauce

Red Bulgur with Pine Nuts and Dried Cherries

Tarte Tatin

I’ll post each of these recipes this week along with prep ideas so you can bring it all together easily. I made the meatballs, sauce and pumpkin seeds a day ahead, the bulgur and soup Saturday morning, and the tarte just before everyone arrived. This might have been the most calm and prepared I’ve ever been for a dinner party.

Happy Birthday Carolina!

Kabocha and Fennel soup a gorgeous dish to pull out in the fall. The minute kabocha hits the markets, it’s the first thing I make. Straight out of my all-time favorite cookbook, Sunday Suppers at Lucques, it’s a stunning starter for Thanksgiving. You can make the soup and pumpkin seeds ahead of time taking one more thing off your day of to do list.

Roasted Kabocha and Fennel Soup with Crème Fraiche (from Sunday Suppers at Lucques)

Serves 12 as a starter, 6 as a main course

2 pounds kabocha squash, halved lengthwise and seeded

3 medium-sized bulbs fennel (recipe calls for 2 but I love me some roasted fennel to I go for 3)

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

5 teaspoons kosher salt, plus more to taste

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

2 teaspoons fennel seeds

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups onions, sliced

1 tablespoon thyme leaves

1 chile de árbol (the recipe calls for 2 but my kids like this soup so I make it less spicy, if making for all adults do 2)

1 bay leaf

3/4 cups sherry

8 cups chicken reduced sodium chicken broth (the recipe calls for 10 but I like it a little thicker, have 2 more cups on hand if you want to thin it)

1/4 cup crème fraîche

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Cut the kabocha in half. I use a vegetable peeler to peel off the skin. You can use a paring knife too but I think it takes off too much flesh. It’s a little tricky holding on to the squash while you peel it so have a clean kitchen towel or paper towel to hold it with.

Toss the squash and fennel with the olive oil with 1 teaspoon of salt and some freshly ground black pepper on a baking sheet and lay out in a single layer. Roast for about 35 minutes, until tender and slightly caramelized.

Meanwhile, toast the fennel seeds in a small pan over medium heat for 2-3 minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar.

Heat a Dutch oven or soup pot over high heat for 2 minutes. Add the butter, and when it foams, add the onions, fennel seeds, thyme, chiles, bay leaf, 1 teaspoon salt and freshly ground black pepper. Reduce the heat to medium-high, and cook for about 10 minutes, stirring often, until the onions are soft, translucent, and starting to color.

Add the squash and fennel, and stir to coat with the onions for a minute. Turn the heat back up to high and pour in the sherry. Let it reduce for a minute or two, and then add the stock. Bring to a boil, turn down the heat, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Use a hand blender to puree the soup. If you don’t have a hand blender (and why don’t you? they are cheap and super useful) you can separate the broth and solids and slowly puree batches of solids in a blender with a little broth until all is pureed. Pour back into the soup pot and reheat. If the soup is the right consistency for you, great. If you want it thinner, add broth until you get it the way you like it. Taste for salt and pepper.

Ladle into bowls. Put a dollop of crème fraîche each bowl and scatter pumpkin seeds (recipe below) over the top.

Candied Pumpkin Seeds

1/4 teaspoon cumin seeds

2 teaspoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup raw pumpkin seeds

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

Generous pinch of ground cinnamon

Generous pinch of paprika

Generous pinch of cayenne pepper

pinch of kosher salt

1 teaspoon honey

Toast the cumin seeds in a small pan over medium heat 2-3 minutes, until the seeds release their aroma and are lightly browned. Pound them coarsely in a mortar or grind in a spice mill.

Melt the butter in the cumin pan over medium heat. Add the pumpkin seeds and sugar, then sprinkle the spices and a healthy pinch of salt over them. Toss the pumpkin seeds to coat them well with the butter, and cook a few minutes, until just after they begin to pop and color slightly.

Turn off the heat, and wait 30 seconds. Add the honey, tossing well to coat the pumpkin seeds. Spread on a plate and let them cool.