Mmm-mmm-good

A spicy pumpkin soup changed her into a fan of soups.

Growing up, I was never a big fan of soup. Sure, I'd heat up an occasional can of Campbell's if there was nothing else on hand to suit my fancy. But as far as preference? I found the very idea of soup less than appetizing – it was too watery and unsatisfying.

During my freshman year of college, while all the girls on my dorm floor sustained themselves on a diet of ramen noodle soup, I stuck to my principles – and frozen chicken dinners and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.

Even when the going got rough, I snubbed soup. The whole ramen thing was just too cliché, anyway, I thought.

But last Thanksgiving I was faced with an epiphany, a turning point if you will.

Thanksgiving dinner with my boyfriend's family was a culture shock. I come from a big Irish family in which Thanksgiving means a whole slew of family members showing up whenever they want, bringing whatever they want, and staying until after midnight. The whole scene is anarchy: bottomless cups of coffee, never-ending stories, and ridiculously competitive board games that often end in shouting matches.

The food – while delicious – is merely a backdrop to the night's events.

So when I sat down last Thanksgiving at the home of my boyfriend's mother and noticed my name written on a place card on the table, I got nervous.

I was immediately reassured by the warm smiles across the table. The guests were an assortment of family members and longtime friends of my boyfriend's mother. These weren't stuffy people; they simply enjoyed a great meal.

Along with the place cards, a stylish printed menu accompanied each table setting. The first course? Golden pumpkin spiced soup.

I was, as always, skeptical. But I was also hungry. I munched on crackers while waiting to be served the soup. Mentally, I had already skipped to the next course: a green salad with pecans and feta cheese.

As I daydreamed of croutons, an aesthetically pleasing white bowl was placed in front of me, accompanied by a perfect little utensil. A soup spoon – what fun! The soup was a delightful fall orange color and was topped with a dash of black pepper for decoration.

I was charmed despite myself. I took a bite. I was in pumpkin heaven. It was creamy, without being heavy. Just the right amount of spice – and just the right kind. The hot soup was incredibly comforting and made each delicate slurp a true sensory experience.

Here's where the epiphany occurred, and it was: I really like soup.

Since then, my cooking has entered its renaissance period, an era of organic ingredients, exotic tastes – and many kitchen mishaps. Where there was once a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, now lies a slightly overcooked yam biscuit and an artfully executed burrito.

My once-tumultuous relationship with soups and bisques has reached new heights; I am on a never-ending quest to create the perfect soup. The process has seen me experiment with many unusual ingredients and delicious recipes. It turns out that soups are creative as well as great-tasting.

Sweet Potato Bisque

6 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

4 to 5 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped into 2-inch chunks

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1 clove garlic, minced

1 tablespoon diced jalapeño pepper (or to taste)

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

2 cups chicken broth

1 (15-ounce) can coconut milk

1-1/2 cups milk

Salt and pepper to taste

1/4 cup shredded coconut (for garnish)

1/4 cup chopped cilantro (optional, for garnish)

1/3 cup chopped roasted pumpkin seeds (optional, for garnish)

Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan and add salt and sweet potatoes. Cover and simmer 15 minutes, or until the potatoes are soft. Drain and set aside.

While potatoes are cooking, heat oil in a large frying pan. Add onion, garlic, and jalapeño pepper. Cook until softened, about 3 minutes.

Place potatoes and sautéed vegetables in a food processor or blender – in batches if necessary – and purée until smooth.

Strain and pour back into the saucepan. Whisk in cinnamon, chicken broth, coconut milk, and regular milk. Simmer 5 minutes. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Serve warm garnished with coconut and with cilantro or pumpkin seeds, if desired.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

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