This soup does not claim any specific provenance; in fact, I developed the recipe over a few suppers. And yet I daresay most Italians would immediately recognise it as “Italian” – even if the spicing might throw them at first.
For me this soup speaks with a Northern Italian accent and is related to the cookery of Lombardy and Emilia Romagna, possibly because it is reminiscent of the local tortelli di zucca, the sweet and spiced pumpkin ravioli that are among the jewels of Italian cooking. It is not much more that roasted pumpkin and cooked chickpeas, but there is an unusual spicing that elevates the dish. The mix of nutmeg, cardamom, black pepper and cinnamon is something I came up with a few years ago after reading The Medieval Kitchen. Recipes from France and Italy (Odile Redon, Françoise Sabban and Silvano Serventi, The University of Chicago Press, originally published with the title La gastronomie au Moyen Age: 150 recettes de France et d’Italie, Éditions Stock). A brilliant read and excellent recipes. The unusual spicing gives the dish an exotic edge.
500 g butternut or crown squash (net weight once cleaned)
500 g cooked chickpeas (or two cans, rinsed)
2 shallots, finely chopped
1 sprig of rosemary
1 fresh bay leaf
3 or 4 large sage leaves
vegetable stock (or the chickpea cooking liquid)
a generous pinch of Medieval spices
Cut up the butternut/crown squash, drizzle with a little oil and roast it in a hot oven until tender and golden.
Medieval spices : ½ teaspoon each of grated nutmeg and powdered cardamom seeds, a little less of ground black peppercorns and ground cinnamon. You will not use it all but it keeps for weeks (they are also excellent on some simple buttered pasta with parmigiano).
Chop the rosemary and the sage together and keep aside.
Fry the shallots and half the herbs in a knob of butter, on a low heat, salting them lightly and keeping the saucepan covered. When the shallots are tender, add the pumpkin and the chickpeas and stir well. Add enough hot vegetable stock to barely cover the vegetables; if you have a piece of parmesan rind in fridge, add it to the pot: it will lend the soup a lovely cheese flavour and, cut up, it can be eaten too, when cooked – it becomes pleasantly gooey.
Add a pinch of the spices.
Let it simmer, partially covered, for 30-40 minutes. Remove the bay leaf. Process some of the soup with a hand-held blender to get a creamy consistency. Lightly fry the remaining chopped herbs in some more butter and add them to the soup, alongside a generous handful of parmigiano. Check for salt and add a little acidity to counterbalance the overall sweetness: a teaspoon or so of lemon juice or vinegar will do. Just before serving, add a little more of the Medieval spices mix. Sometimes I add some toasted pumpkin seeds or a few crushed amaretti biscuits – the combination of pumpkin, parmesan, spices and amaretti is really good
This soup is very forgiving. You can try adding some pancetta in the initial stages and/or some cut up potatoes (using less pumpkin).
I have also enjoyed it with fish: add chunks of pre-salted flaky white fish when the soup is done, switch it off and let the fish cook in the residual heat and steam of the soup. Smoked fish works well too.
With borlotti and porcini: add some reconstituted, chopped dry ceps to the shallots and use borlotti instead of chickpeas
Update 2021: I added grated fresh ginger to the initial soffritto – excellent. I used just pumpkin.