Falling snow reminds me of my grandmother. For the first twelve years of my life, I lived four doors down the street from Lora Bolick Minton, “Granny” to me and her other grandchildren. During summer, I was Granny’s garden helper and she taught me many lessons about growing and harvesting plants, lessons I thought I forgot, until I grew my own garden. Often, when I reach for a cucumber, I hear her voice reminding me to take care not to step on the tender vines. Other times, when insect pests devour seedlings, I remember which bugs she told me were “bad” and should be killed. As much as I enjoyed working in Granny’s garden, which somehow, always felt more like play, I loved being in her kitchen, where enticing aromas wafted from her oven or stovetop, where simmering saucepans of goodness filled every gas burner. At no time was Granny’s kitchen more inviting than when snow was falling. As soon as she spied the first flakes, Granny began to make a huge pot of oyster stew and, without announcement or telephone calls, family soon arrived to enjoy steaming bowls of rich cream soup, topped with a thick layer of churned, melted butter and served with tiny oyster crackers.
Oyster stew is a favorite dish in my family, also. Even daughter Kate, who is allergic (sadly) to the bivalves, enjoys the soup base, albeit without oysters. Although my first stews followed Granny’s basic recipe, several years ago I discovered a soup base that is perfect for oyster stew, looks deceivingly rich and buttery, but is actually very low in calories and is heart-healthy.
With an abundant crop of summer squash, I made creamy squash soup. I shared some with a friend, who made her own soup and served it to her father. After enjoying a bowl, my friend’s father declared, “The soup was great, but I didn’t get a single oyster!” The next time I tasted the soup, I realized this man’s palate was accurate. The soup did have an oyster stew flavor and appearance, but without oysters. When I added oysters to my next batch, I discovered it is possible to enjoy rich stew flavor, without a dairy base. Since the soup’s color is deceptively close to butter and cream, I call it “Trompe L’Oeil Oyster Stew,” since trompe l’oeil is a French term that means “trick the eye” and is usually applied to works of art that create an optical illusion.
In North Carolina, oysters are not in season at the same time as summer squash. Thankfully, I am able to preserve soup base that retains the flavor and texture we enjoy during squash harvest time. For interesting presentation, top a bowl of this soup with a single, perfectly fried, golden brown oyster. The following recipe is for soup base, but if you are interested in the recipe for fresh squash soup, it is in the “Farm Fresh Recipes” section of this website. I apologize for the lack of organization in that area and fully intend to overhaul it . . . when I get time. For now, it is squash season and I am madly processing!
Trompe L’Oeil Stew Base (aka Summer Squash Soup)
Yield: 7 pints
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large stockpot. Add 2 cups chopped onion and 1/4 cup chopped yellow or green pepper. (I used an heirloom Fish pepper that has a little heat, but you could substitute banana pepper, either sweet or hot.)
Saute onion and pepper in oil until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add 4 cups vegetable stock and 12 cups summer squash, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces. Season with 1 teaspoon sea salt, not iodized (I used French Grey) and 1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper. Cover stockpot with lid and cook over low heat for about 20 minutes, until squash begins to fall apart. Remove pot from heat and allow to slightly cool.
Use an immersion blender to blend squash mixture until very smooth. Alternatively, place mixture, in small batches, in a stand blender and blend until smooth. Heat soup base over medium heat until boiling, then remove from heat.
Immediately fill hot glass canning jars, either pints or quarts, to within one inch of the top of the jar, with soup base. Carefully wipe jar rims with a clean damp cloth and affix lids, screwing tightly to close. In a large pressure canner, process soup at 10 pounds of pressure, 40 minutes for quarts and 30 minutes for pints.