This is a peaceful pumpkin soup. It’s the kind of meal you want to eat from a mug, with your hands wrapped around to hold in the warmth and your face bent forward to catch the steam and aroma of spices. It’s a respite from the rich, heavy foods so prevalent in December. Preparing a pot is physically calming, compared to the fraught thermometer-watching of candy-making or the constant scoop-rotate-check-cool-repeat of cookies. The process feels like a recharge, a quiet moment in the kitchen.
So there you have my emotional reaction to pumpkin soup. (Who knew a humble soup could have such an effect?) But the words are true! Lately, when I’m going in fifty directions with a to-do list that’s longer than I care for, this is what I want to make and certainly what I want to eat. I like the ritual of toasting and grinding the spices with my trusty mortar & pestle. Inspired by my favorite flavors in both Indian and Thai curries, as different as they usually are, it’s nowhere near the spice level of a traditional curry from either cuisine. The uncommon combination of creamy soup with pungent spices is comforting, but I’ve taken care not to let the spices overpower the pumpkin. My soup is filling, flavorful and adaptable to suit vegan or dairy-free guests at a dinner party. I’ve made it vegan and dairy-free with vegetable stock and coconut milk (no fish sauce) and, when I didn’t have coconut milk in the house, an equally wonderful version with chicken stock and whole milk. It is elegant enough to work beautifully as the first course on an extensive menu and simple enough to make as a weeknight meal on the fly.
The first few weeks of December have passed in a blur. If you’ve been to more holiday parties than you can remember (ahem); eaten (or baked, or both) more cookies than you can count; wrapped more gifts than you have room for under the tree– this soup is for you. Put it in a nice big mug, wrap your hands around it and take a minute to just breathe. And eat.
Pumpkin Soup with Toasted Spices (serves 4-6)
- 1/2 tsp. coriander seeds
- 1/2 tsp. whole cumin
- 1/8 tsp. cardamom seeds (not pods)
- 2 T. olive oil
- 1 small leek, cut in half lengthwise and sliced, white and light green parts only (about 1 c.), or 1/2 c. diced yellow onion
- 1/4 tsp. cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp. ground ginger
- 3 c. pumpkin puree*
- 4 c. vegetable or chicken stock
- 1 c. coconut milk or whole milk
- pinch of kosher salt
- 1/2 tsp. fish sauce (optional but recommended)
- freshly ground black pepper
To your dry stockpot or Dutch oven, add the coriander seeds, cumin and cardamom seeds. Toast over medium heat, swirling the pan frequently to discourage burning, until you can smell the spices and notice a slight browning of the cumin. Transfer to a spice grinder or mortar bowl and grind to a fine consistency.
To the same stockpot/Dutch oven, add olive oil and increase the heat slightly to medium-high. Saute the leeks until soft and starting to become fragrant; it’s not necessary to melt or brown them. Add the ground toasted spices, cinnamon and ginger and stir until coated. Cook the spices and leeks another minute or two, then add in the pumpkin puree and mix. Whisk in the stock, an eyeballed cup or so at a time, until all the stock is incorporated and you have an even mixture of pumpkin and stock.
Bring the soup to a gentle boil, lower the heat to low and barely simmer for 30 mins. Since all the ingredients are cooked at this point, you’re mostly reducing/thickening the soup and accentuating the spice flavors. (If you want to simmer longer, cover the pot so the soup doesn’t over-reduce.) When you’re ready to eat, remove from the heat and puree with an immersion blender until smooth. Add the coconut milk (or whole milk), salt and fish sauce, if using. (Remember that fish sauce can be salty.) Return to the burner just until the soup is heated through; taste and adjust seasonings, if necessary. Serve hot, garnished with a few grinds of black pepper.
*The pumpkin puree can be from a pumpkin you roasted or from a can, but should not be pumpkin pie mix.