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Pumpkin Bisque is seasonal treat

Pumpkin Bisque, thickened without cream to keep calories and fat low, can be served in mini-pumpkins.
Pumpkin Bisque, thickened without cream to keep calories and fat low, can be served in mini-pumpkins.
Ben Fink, Associated Press

HYDE PARK, N.Y. — Pumpkins are like the mascots of autumn. "Dressed" in orange-toned uniforms of varying shapes and sizes, their arrival at stores, farm stands and front porches evokes the spirit of the season, year after year.

From pumpkin carving to pie baking, this popular gourd encourages creativity in the kitchen. Its tender flesh and mildly sweet, earthy flavor add warmth to baked goods and savory dishes alike.

Pumpkin bisque, seasoned with a hint of fresh ginger, is a delicious example of the pumpkin's culinary capabilities.

With their base of cream, traditional bisques can wreak havoc on the waistline. Modern bisque renditions, however, including those using pumpkin as their base, can provide a healthier alternative. These healthful variations incorporate vegetable-based thickeners and other nontraditional ingredients to keep calories and fat low.

If counting calories isn't a concern, a variety of garnishes can add a delightful contrast to this flavorful soup. For added richness, dress up each portion with a tablespoon of diced, cooked lobster, or a dollop of unsweetened whipped cream or creme fraiche.

Add texture to this smooth soup by scattering each serving with roasted pumpkin seeds or pumpernickel croutons. The seeds lend a nutty essence, and the croutons contribute a zesty crunch.

Because pumpkin bisque relies on the fibrous nature of fresh pumpkin and vegetables for its thick and velvety consistency, do not use canned pumpkin for this particular recipe. Instead, use "pie" or "sugar" pumpkins that are heavy for their size, and free of soft spots and blemishes. This variety is smaller and sweeter than larger pumpkins commonly used for decorative purposes.

Unlike most fresh produce, pumpkins store well. They last up to a month at room temperature, and can maintain their quality for several months in the refrigerator. Pumpkin flesh also freezes well, enabling you to enjoy a fresh bowl of bisque any time of the year. Just peel, dice and store pumpkin in airtight containers or zip-lock bags for future use.

Bill Phillips, associate professor in culinary arts at The Culinary Institute of America, suggests a unique twist to this recipe: "Take advantage of the local varieties of squashes available, such as blue hubbard, currie or acorn, and substitute one of them for the pumpkin."

The following recipes, along with more than 100 others, are featured in The Culinary Institute of America's "Book of Soups" (Lebhar-Friedman, 2001, $35).


PUMPKIN BISQUE

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 garlic cloves, chopped (about one teaspoon)

1 celery stalk, diced (about 1/2 cup)

1 small onion, diced (about 1 cup)

1 leek, white part only, diced (about 1 cup)

1 pound pumpkin flesh, diced (about 3 1/2 cups)

2 quarts chicken broth

2 tablespoons white wine or more chicken broth

1/2 teaspoon grated ginger

Salt, to taste

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg (optional)

Pumpernickel Croutons, if desired (recipe follows)

Heat the butter in a soup pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, celery, onion and leek. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is translucent, 7 to 10 minutes. Add the pumpkin and broth. Bring to a simmer and cook until the vegetables are tender, about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the wine or extra broth to a simmer in a small saucepan. Immediately remove from the heat, add the ginger, and cover. Steep 10 minutes, then strain the wine and discard the ginger.

Strain the solids from the soup, reserving the liquid. Using a food processor, puree the solids, adding enough of the reserved liquid to achieve a slightly thick consistency. Add the wine to the soup and season with salt and nutmeg, if using. Garnish with pumpernickel croutons, if desired, and serve in heated bowls or hollowed-out mini-pumpkins.

Makes 8 servings.

Nutrition information (including croutons) per serving: 140 cal., 5 g pro., 13 g carbo., 7 g fat, 550 mg sodium, 10 mg chol., 2 g fiber.


PUMPERNICKEL CROUTONS

3 slices pumpernickel bread

1 1/2 tablespoons melted unsalted butter or olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Remove the crust from the bread, if desired. Cut the bread into cubes no larger than a soup spoon, about 1/2 inch. (If the bread is very fresh, dry the cubes in a 200 F oven for 5 minutes.)

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Toss the bread, butter or oil, and salt in a bowl. Spread the bread cubes in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake until golden, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir the croutons once or twice during baking to brown evenly. When completely cooled, croutons will keep well for several days in an airtight container.

Makes about 2 cups.