Brazilian Squash and Black Bean Soup

Another in an unending series of amazing winter soups, perfect for those long, dark, cold evenings. This one, again, manages to be so much more than the sum of its parts – put it down to great ingredients, being allowed to exhibit their greatness.

In my recipe notebook there is a little annotation beside this one, it simply says: ‘Wow!’

This is why I love winter, food like this.

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RECIPE – serves 4 to 6 people

1 butternut squash, chopped into 2cm chunks

2 tbsp olive oil + 1 tbsp to coat the squash when roasting

1 large onion, chopped

1 tbsp cumin seeds, dry-fried and ground

1 tbsp coriander seeds, dry-fried and ground

2 fat cloves of garlic, peeled and crushed

2 red chillies, finely chopped (seeds left in if you like heat)

1 red pepper, deseeded and chopped into 1cm chunks

1 tbsp fresh thyme, leaves only

1 tsp dried chilli flakes

1 litre vegetable stock

1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla) or Marmite

150g dried black beans

100g frozen sweetcorn

1 tsp light muscovado sugar

2 large ripe tomatoes, roughly chopped

the zest and juice of 1 lime

To serve: 

a small bunch of coriander leaves, chopped

50g per person bulghur wheat, toasted


METHOD 

The conventional wisdom is that you should soak the black beans in plenty of water, the evening before you use them. However, after much back-to-back testing it is plain that not soaking them makes them blacker, more beany and flavourful, at the cost of having to cook them for a little longer. How long? Around 90 minutes or so, until they are soft but retain bite and texture – the older your beans the longer they will take. To cook them, use a big pan and plenty of water, into which you have put an onion – halved but otherwise intact – an orange, again halved and gently squeezed, and then put both halves in the water, and a couple of whole, peeled garlic cloves. Bring to the boil then simmer until ready. If you have a pressure cooker then life is much simpler, follow the guidelines for your device but cook them for around 20-25 minutes. When cooked, remove the onion, orange and garlic and set the beans aside.

You don’t have to do all this, but for some reason using dried beans adds more flavour, and when cooked using aromatic ingredients the flavours are amped up even higher; tinned beans are fine though, no need to feel guilty.

While you are preparing the beans, coat the squash chunks in a little oil, season lightly and roast in a 200C/ gas 6 for around 30 minutes until soft and just starting to caramelise at the edges. This is another worthwhile step; roasting vegetables accentuates their sweetness and adds further dimensions to any dish in which they are used.

Put the cumin and coriander seeds in a small pan (not non-stick) and heat gently with no oil for a few minutes until they are aromatic and the cumin seeds are just starting to pop. Tip onto a metal plate to cool, then either crush in a mortar and pestle or grind to a powder using a coffee grinder reserved exclusively for spices.

Meanwhile, in a large pan, heat the oil and gently fry the chopped onions for around 10 minutes until just softened, then add the cumin and coriander, garlic, chopped chillies, chopped red pepper, thyme and chilli flakes. Mix well and cook gently for a minute or two, stirring frequently and taking care not to burn the garlic or dry herbs and spices.

Add the squash, with sufficient stock to cover everything (it may not require the whole litre) and add the fish sauce. Bring to the boil then add the black beans, sweetcorn and sugar, then simmer for 15 minutes.

Ideally, at this point leave your soup to sit for a few hours so that the flavours can develop, the longer you can leave it the better it will be. This really works, but if you eat it straight away it will still be delicious.

Five minutes before serving, roughly chop the tomatoes (as a guide, chop into around 12 pieces) and add to the simmering soup then, just before serving, finely grate the zest of the lime into it and squeeze in the lime juice, stir thoroughly and check and adjust the seasoning. Scatter with the coriander and top each bowl with a few spoonfuls of toasted bulghur wheat.

To make it suitable for a vegan, simply omit the fish sauce; it can be replaced with 4 teaspoons of Marmite which has a similar umami nature.

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