NEW ORLEANS — After 40 years of making soups in the same hotel kitchen, Henry Givens knows a good soup when he tastes one. And his special holiday pumpkin soup, a feast for the eyes as well as the palate, is one of his favorites.
Givens, soup master at the Fairmont in New Orleans, not only makes the specialty with plenty of fresh pumpkin but serves it with great flair in the carved-out pumpkin shell.
"We used to serve it just in casserole," he recalls. "When we started serving it in a pumpkin, it looked a lot better."
According to Givens, the original presentation idea came from a French chef who worked at the Fairmont eight or nine years ago. It went over so well with diners that it stayed on the holiday menu after the chef moved away.
In fact, the soup has become such an annual event at the Fairmont that Givens keeps his eye on each year's pumpkin crop, knowing a poor harvest will mean complaints at holiday time from disappointed patrons.
The soup master developed his basic skills--and his work habits--as an Army mess sergeant during World War II, but it was at the Fairmont that he refined them into nothing short of mastery.
For the last four decades, he has been starting soups at 6 each morning and turning out up to 50 gallons at a time.
In addition to the daily selection of gumbo, oyster and artichoke, French onion and turtle soup, Givens prepares a soup du jour, plus anything special ordered up for banquets.
His holiday soup is a straightforward blend of pureed pumpkin, chicken broth and cream that can be prepared in advance and refrigerated. The trickiest step is the proper handling of the pumpkin once the flesh is removed.
Like a good soldier, Givens wastes little. Even the pumpkin seeds are toasted so guests have something festive to nibble before sitting down to the holiday table.
Here is Givens' recipe for holiday pumpkin soup, along with his formulas for fixing croutons to garnish each bowl and toasting the pumpkin seeds.
FAIRMONT HOTEL SOUPE AU CITROUILLE
1 (6- to 8-pound) blemish-free pumpkin with stem intact
2 tablespoons softened butter
4 cups chicken broth
4 cups whipping cream
1 cup finely shredded Gruyere cheese
Toasted Buttered Croutons
Cut lid from top of pumpkin and lift it out. Scrape fibers and seeds from underside of lid and set them aside. Scrape fibers and seeds from inside of pumpkin, reserving to make Toasted Pumpkin Seeds.
Remove about 1/2-inch of flesh from interior of pumpkin, using large spoon and curved grapefruit knife. Do not pierce shell. Leave at least 1/2-inch wall on pumpkin.
Set pumpkin shell and lid in large baking pan. Rub inside of pumpkin and underside of lid lightly with softened butter. Set pumpkin aside.
Dice pieces of pumpkin flesh into 1/2-inch cubes (these should equal almost 3 cups). Combine chicken broth with pumpkin in saucepan. Heat to boil, then reduce heat and simmer covered 45 minutes, or until pumpkin is tender. Let cool slightly.
Puree pumpkin-broth mixture in batches in food processor or through food mill. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Add some of pureed pumpkin to cream to prepare it, then add rest of puree to cream. Taste to adjust for seasonings. (At this point, soup can be refrigerated and stored for later use.)
Heat soup in large pot on stove. Place pumpkin in 375-degree oven and bake 15 minutes.
Then remove pumpkin and carefully ladle hot soup into heated shell. Sprinkle with cheese. Place lid on pumpkin, return it to oven and bake 15 minutes.
If pumpkin seems sturdy enough, transfer with hands protected by mitts to serving platter. If not sturdy enough, leave on baking pan. Place pumpkin at center of table.
Ladle soup into shallow soup dishes. Sprinkle a few croutons on each bowl of soup. Makes about 10 cups, or 8 servings.
Toasted Buttered Croutons: Trim crusts from 3 slices of firm bread. Butter bread lightly on both sides and cut into 1/4-inch dice. Spread bread cubes in single layer on baking sheet. Bake at 375 degrees until golden, stirring once or twice, about 15 minutes. Can be made ahead, if desired.