Friday, January 14, 2005

Dinner with Pamela

Last month my friend Pam treated me to a wonderful dinner at a lovely downtown bistro called Aioli. Owned and operated by a young female chef named Julie Francis, Aioli is a charming place, seating 73, painted in purple and gold with a bright mural on the back wall. It is intimate without feeling claustrophobic with a small bar near the entrance, white-clothed tables and a few horseshoe-shaped booths. After being seated in a booth, we studied the dinner menu intently. Pam is from a large and close-knit Italian family and, like me, loves to eat (and talk about food while dining). When the waiter returned to tell us the evening's specials, our eyes lit up. Soupe au potiron (pumpkin soup) was on the fire that night, garnished with a jumbo chipotle pepper-spiced shrimp and creme fraiche. How could we resist?

I had fallen so madly in love with pumpkin soup on my first visit to Paris a few years ago, I had it twice. The first time was at dinner with my friend Jef in a tiny restaurant near the Bastille, called Le C'amelot. Owned by chef Didier Varnet--one of Christian Constant's former acolytes at Les Ambassadeurs at the Hotel Crillon--this soupe au potiron seemed just the thing for a cold winter night. I didn't know what to expect when it arrived in its small tureen, but it was creamy and savory and possibly potato-based. It seemed almost like a hot pumpkin vichysoisse. The other time I had it was after a long trek to the Pont Neuf. Standing on the Left Bank, I looked across the Seine toward Le Samaritaine. It was lunchtime and I was starving. A solitary diner, I made my way up several floors by elevator to the store's gorgeous Art Nouveau restaurant, Le Toupary. To my delight, while taking in the restaurant's breathtaking view of Paris, the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance, my pumpkin soup arrived. Served hot again, this time in a small bowl and fragrant with a light dusting of Chinese star anise (anis d'etoile), somehow it seemed lighter and more delicate than the first. In any case, I now find that I am always on the prowl for a new bowl of pumpkin soup. And, despite the name of this recipe, it is certainly not just for Halloween in my book!

Pumpkin Soup for Halloween

2 pounds fresh pumpkin, cubed
1 quart homemade chicken stock
1 tablespoon sugar
3 tablespoons creme fraiche or heavy cream
Sea salt
Freshly ground white pepper

Bring pumpkin, stock, and sugar to a boil in a 6-quart stockpot over high heat. Cover and boil for 18 minutes. (Pumpkin should cook quickly to avoid bitterness.)

Puree soup in food processor or with hand blender until smooth. (May be prepared ahead of time to this point; cool and refrigerate.)

Before serving, return to boil; skim off any scum that rises to the top. Add creme fraiche and bring back to boil. Salt and pepper to taste. Serve in warmed shallow soup bowls.

Makes 4 servings.

from The Paris Cookbook by Patricia Wells, copyright 2001, published by Harper-Collins