Ras el hanout, a Pantry Special (Recipe: butternut squash soup)
Pantry Specials are great ingredients that find their way into my pantry from time to time, but not all the time.
Some ingredients defy description. Arabic for "head of the market", or "top of the shop", ras el hanout is a blend of up to 30 individual herbs and spices, often including nutmeg and mace, cinnamon, turmeric, cayenne, ginger, cardamom, black pepper, allspice and cloves. In the souks of Morocco, spice merchants take pride in offering the most complex, aromatic, and exotic ras el hanout (it's said you can even get a custom blend, with hashish!). A Tunisian or Algerian ras el hanout might contain only half a dozen spices. Each household creates a unique formulation, much as Indian cooks mix their own garam masala or curry powder (both of which can substitute, in a pinch, for ras el hanout). The sum is greater than the parts; ras el hanout adds warmth and depth to many dishes, especially long-cooked tagines, stews, and couscous.
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How to use ras el hanout:
Ras el hanout chicken skewers
Moroccan carrot dip
Grilled shrimp and vegetable skewers
Honey spiced lamb
Warm Hokkaido squash and white bean salad
Stuffed cabbage tagine
Ras el hanout madeleines
Butternut squash soup
A hybrid of several of my favorite soups, this freezes well. Make it vegan by substituting water for the chicken broth. Serves 6-8.
4 tsp olive oil
2 small butternut squash, peeled, cut into large chunks
1 small sweet potato, peeled, cut into chunks
1 medium onion, cut into chunks
2 small tart apples, cored (but skin left on), cut into chunks
2 tsp sweet curry powder
1 heaping tsp ras el hanout
Pinch of cayenne pepper
1 quart chicken stock (homemade or low-sodium store-bought)
1 Tbsp agave nectar or honey
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Fresh ground black pepper, to taste
In a 6- or 8-quart stockpot, heat the oil over medium heat, and add the squash, sweet potatoes and onion. Stir and cook for 5 minutes or until the onion is translucent, and the squash is starting to lose its raw appearance. Add the apples, stir, and cook for 3 minutes. Add curry powder, ras el hanout, and cayenne, and stir to combine. Cook, stirring often, for 2 minutes, or until the spices are a bit toasted. Add chicken stock, plus water to almost cover the vegetables. Bring to boil, then reduce heat to simmer and cook partially-covered for 30 minutes, until the vegetables are quite soft.
Remove the pot from the stove, and puree with an immersion blender (or puree in batches in a blender or food processor) until smooth. Season with agave, lemon juice and black pepper and, if you want more heat, add a few drops of Tabasco sauce. Return the pot to the stove, and simmer over lowest heat for 5 minutes to blend the flavors; or, if you would like a thicker soup, continue to simmer, uncovered, to desired consistency.