Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Ghost in my Kitchen (and The Simplest Butternut Squash Soup)

There's a ghost in my kitchen, and it looks a lot like a 13-year-old English Cocker Spaniel named Brandy.

Exactly one week ago, after months of vet visits and medications and a sobering diagnosis of kidney failure, John, John's brother Chris, and I had Brandy (their childhood/family dog, the first dog I ever lived with) laid to rest. Nothing prepares you for that decision. For John and Chris, it was the end of an era. With the kind of unconditional love only a dog can exhibit, Brandy was a trusted friend to both of them, and a tangible bond that kept them together through adolescence and into adulthood. For me, Brandy represented a series of very important life events: meeting John, adjusting to an otherwise solitary freelance career, becoming a defacto dog "owner" for the first time, and finding myself a real, permanent, home.

When I first met Brandy it was after my third date with John, two and a half years ago, and by the way he studied her reaction, I could tell that her initial impressions of me would be weighted closely with his own. "She's always been suspicious of women," he warned. So I took it as a good sign that she jumped clumsily onto my lap as soon as he left the room. After I moved in with John, a year or so later, Brandy and I developed a set daily routine for my freelance days. We'd send John off to work in the morning, and then Brandy would escort me to the kitchen, where I'd make my breakfast and she'd lick up the crumbs, yogurt droplets, and rogue pieces of fruit that were inevitably dropped on the floor in my pre-caffeine stupor. For the rest of the day I would type away on the computer or crane over stacks of proofs and Brandy would lie at (or sometimes on) my feet, getting up only for a quick afternoon walk or a stroll around our little back yard. And at the first signs of dinner preparations—the large ceramic bowl being plunked down on the counter, the shish-shish of a knife through vegetables or greens—she'd perk up, scramble to her feet, and hurry to my side.

John joked that he and Brandy had similar roles in the kitchen: he to wash the mess of dishes that I left in the sink, and Brandy to clean up the scraps I dropped on the floor. Soon all three of us learned a new kitchen dance—John moving from counter to sink, cleaning surfaces and dishes as I finished with them, I moving sporadically from counter to stove and back again, and Brandy weaving between our legs, face up, attentive, reveling in my messiness.
It wasn't until she was gone that I realized how much Brandy's presence influenced the rhythm of my daily life. Yesterday, when the doorbell rang (John's wedding suit had arrived!), I opened the door just a crack and shimmied my way out, my back leg sweeping the floor behind me to detain her. And even as I sit here now typing this post, my ears are poised to detect a scratch at the back door or a suspicious scuffle of paws in the kitchen. John was gone on business most of the week, making the house eerily quiet, and each night while I made my dinner I could almost feel her behind me like a phantom limb.

Without my clean-up crew (and in light of my disdain for dish washing) I decided to make one giant pot of butternut squash to last the week. The recipe couldn't be easier, adapted from, and since this was the fourth or fifth time I've made it this season, I figured it was as good an occasion as any to finally post it here.

You'd think it would have been easier to chop all those veggies without a Cocker Spaniel under my feet, burrowing herself between my ankles to sniff at the shavings and stray bits of carrot and celery and squash as they fell. But as it turns out, I've never been so clumsy in my life, tripping over my own feet and unconsciously moving with long strides from the counter to the stove and back an effort to avoid the dog who wasn't there.

The Simplest Butternut Squash Soup

Makes 12 servings

4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
7 garlic cloves, minced
3 medium carrots, peeled and diced
2 celery stalks, diced
2 medium onions, diced
8 cups 1/2-inch cubed butternut squash (from about 3-1/2 pounds of squash)
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth

Heat the oil in a large heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Add the garlic, cook for 1 minute, and then add the carrots, celery, and onions. Cook for 4 to 5 minutes, or until the vegetables begin to soften and the onion is translucent. Add the squash, thyme, salt, and pepper to the pot and mix well to distribute the ingredients. Cook for two minutes or so, stirring constantly, until the squash brightens a bit in color, and then pour in the chicken broth. Bring the broth to a boil, reduce the heat to low, cover the pot, and simmer until the squash is fork-tender, about 30 minutes. Carefully pour the soup into a food processor or blender and blend it until it is smooth in consistency. (Of course, if you have an immersion blender, you can blend it right in the pot.)


  1. Thank you, Peggy, for this beautiful memorial to Brandy. AKA: the Brad, Bradster, Bradey, Bradley and most accurately: the control-freak, female-hating Brad. Your uniqueness was evidenced by Brandy's acceptance of you. We all love you and love that you cared so much for Bad Bad Braddy. Mom B.

  2. The love of a pet is a rare and wondrous gift to mankind. Brandy sounds amazing, and you honor her memory with this post. Made me miss my sweet boy Vanamee all over again, but in a good way. Love you, my friend.