I make Belle's butternut squash soup every year for Chinese New Year. Belle is my beloved niece who lives all the way across the world in Singapore with her husband and two small girls, Zoë and Violet.
Perhaps I should prepare Yu Sheng, the raw fish salad - a traditional Singapore New Year's dish. Sometime during this month-long celebration of the Year of the Rat I will, but I always start with the squash soup.
Belle and I made this soup together four years ago when I visited her during the Chinese New Year. It was the Year of the Monkey. The city streets were festooned with elaborate decorations. Shops were full of everything connected to monkeys and the hawker centers, the open-air food markets, were overflowing with the traditional, exotic foods particular to the New Year celebration.
We were preparing a New Year's feast for a small group of friends. My presence made Belle a bit homesick for America, so along with the traditional Singapore foods - the raw fish salad, the lucky noodle salad, the spring rolls and lettuce wraps - we also made this simple butternut squash soup.
Last week, I made it here at home. When my kitchen became perfumed with the mingled aromas of the roast squash, coconut milk, and fresh ginger, I pictured Belle and me pouring off sweat in her tiny apartment kitchen, peeling, cutting and drinking iced tea while the squash roasted and the girls played naked at our feet.
The soup practically makes itself. The first step is to roast the squash. Last week, I thought about calling Belle while the squash roasted, but since it was early evening when I started, the 12-hour time difference made it too early to call Singapore. It was already tomorrow there. Their evening of celebration, feasting, and fireworks had already passed.
Once the squash was done I only needed to add the ginger, broth, potato and onion. As the soup simmered and the kitchen filled with the dense fragrance of onion and ginger I took a moment to picture Zoë and Violet waking up and getting ready for school, putting on their crisp plaid uniforms and sturdy brown oxfords. They go to a bilingual school, which in Singapore means they study Mandarin and English.
Belle's Butternut Squash Soup
1 butternut squash (or 4-5 sweet potatoes peeled and cut into big cubes)
2 cans low salt chicken broth
1 3-inch piece of ginger, peeled (smaller if older (hotter) ginger)
1 white potato peeled and cut up
1 onion, peeled and cut in half
1 can coconut milk
Cut butternut squash in half. Take out seeds and roast cut-side down on lightly greased baking sheet at 350 degrees for 45 minutes, until soft.
Scoop out flesh into a cooking pot.
Add ginger, potato, onion, and broth. Add water if needed to cover.
Bring to boil, and then reduce to simmer. Cook 25 minutes or so until everything is soft.
Process in blender or food processor in small batches until smooth.
Open can of coconut milk and spoon off a little cream. Mix the rest well and add 3/4 can to soup and stir. Garnish bowls with dollop of cream.
Note: Salt to taste after blending. Also you can just use water for vegetarians.
The last touch was to stir in the coconut milk saving a dollop of cream for a garnish. Cooking something we've made together is one way of staying in touch.
For a traditional Singapore New Year's dish make Belle's Yu Sheng or raw fish salad. It's really easy to create, more assembling than cooking. If I am uncertain of the quality of the fish or have guests who do not like to eat it raw, I lightly sear the tuna coated with peppercorns. Once all the ingredients are prepared arrange them separately on a large serving plate. It's fun to make it really pretty by varying colors and textures. Mix the sauce and keep it ready to add just before serving along with the sesame seeds and crushed peanuts.
At the table everyone takes their chop sticks and tosses the salad together by throwing it up in the air as high as possible and shouting "Lo hei" which means "to toss it up" in Mandarin. Tradition holds that the higher you throw the salad the more prosperous your year will be. Perhaps if I throw high enough maybe I'll get back to Singapore for the Year of the Ox.
Belle's Yu Sheng Salad
1 jicama, peeled and shredded (cover with water to prevent browning, then drain before using). Turnip can be substituted if jicama is not available.
2 large carrots peeled and shredded
1/2 cantaloupe cut into thin slices
2 grapefruits separated into sections, pit and seeds removed, each section cut into a few thin wedges
2/3 cup pickled ginger sliced into strips
6 tbsp. vegetable oil
2 tbsp. sesame oil
6 tbsp. plum sauce
juice of 6-7 limes
1 1/2 pounds firm fleshed fish, such as tuna
2 tbsp. peppercorns
salt oil for pan
2 small bunches of scallions, sliced thin white and green
1/4 cup sesame seeds toasted
1/2 cup peanuts roasted and chopped
Prepare all the vegetables and garnishes.
Make dressing by combining oils, plum sauce and lime juice.
Cut fish in thin slices and serve raw or coat with peppercorns and sear briefly over high heat and then slice.
Make salad by arranging fish in the center of the plate and surrounding with symmetrical piles of vegetables.
Pour over dressing and scatter scallions and sesame seeds and peanuts over all.
Remember to toss the salad as high as possible.
Gong Xi Fa Cai! Happy New Year.
Laura Wainwright is a contributing writer to The Times.