I visited the California Department of Motor Vehicles earlier this week to get a proper California license plate and registration for our car. My visit contained all that one might expect from a visit to the DMV: lots of waiting, non-native English speakers struggling to understand instructions that I hardly understand, men both very old and very young desperate for their drivers licenses, an unsuccessful pick-up attempt extended to the unsuspecting young fellow who sat down next to the rather brash woman behind me, frustrated customers all around and plenty of paperwork. It’s kind of like waiting at the doctor’s office, except that everyone is less somber and more angry. I spent a significant portion of my wait thinking about how difficult it would be to work there, explaining policies indecipherable to the majority of the population, smiling knowingly while assuring yet another customer that yes, the fees really are that high, looking out at a sea of people angry just because they have to be there.
Somehow, despite all of that, and despite the fact that the rainy season had begun that morning without notice (well, without notice to me, what with my lack of California savvy), I remained relatively lighthearted. Perhaps it was because my wait was under three hours, or because I had incorrectly assumed that surely something would go wrong and I’d have to return later in the week, or because I was about to check an item off my to-do list that had been there for a very long time — and on a Monday morning at that! — or because there was, after all, so much people watching to do.
Or perhaps it was because however mundane my task, however small the check marks I would be making in my planner and on my phone (yes, both, because I am obsessive like that), there was something larger, something a bit more meaningful and even somewhat monumental wrapped up in the project.
After the forms and the waiting and the paying of fees, I went outside to affix our new California license plate to our car. The morning’s rain had stopped, and light was jetting down through wispy clouds. Being the sentimental person I am, it would have been impossible for me to not pay attention to the moment, or to assign it anything less than significant emotional weight. I looked at the old Michigan plate, weathered from holiday and weekend visits home during college; from camping and wine tasting trips taken to northern Michigan with friends; from a road trip out east I took with my sister when she and her husband returned from Africa; from driving to and from my old job so many times; from that road trip to Chicago and St. Louis on which Ben asked me to marry him; from heading down to Chicago many other times to visit friends — always, it seems, during the cold winter months when the salt strewn across the snowy roads coated everything; from yet another trip to Chicago, this one with my mother to buy my wedding dress; from traversing the whole country with Ben to get here. I’m actually not all that fond of cars in general, and I recognize that this might seem like an overreaction, as I’m not getting rid of the car or anything. But that trusty vehicle has gone with me through a lot — and all of it in my Michigan life.
But we are in California now.
Somewhat surprised at the preparedness of the DMV, what with the various sorts of screwdrivers and pliers that they loaned me for the task of removing the old plates, and supremely grateful that I’d managed the license-plate-switch without much trouble at all, I stood up and looked at my car, which suddenly appeared foreign, an object I would hardly recognize as my own in a grocery store parking lot. It hit me once again that we are here. No more shouting, “Michigan plates!” when we make mistakes on the road, hoping for grace as obvious newcomers. It is official, more and more as the days pass, more each time we check off a moving-related task or wake up feeling at home or enjoy the weather without exclaiming my goodness, the climate is so temperate here! or buy local avocados and October tomatoes without babbling on and on about how strange and glorious that is.
Sometimes I don’t feel like I’m actually in California, because what is it, anyway, that would confirm to me that I’m in a place I didn’t truly know prior to August? Sometimes I feel so rootless, because everything remains in flux and I want it all to just settle down already. But we came here intent on digging our feet in, being fully present from the beginning, enjoying the moments we have and the adventure surrounding us, regardless of any uncertainties about the present and future or any ups or downs we might experience.
As that shiny white plate marked by scrolling red letters that spell out California attests so boldly, we are doing just that.
And in my humble opinion, the equivalent of this, the equivalent of one more step toward the everyday, settled-in life we (all) long for is a bowl of soup. And so in the interest of being at home in a new place and staying warm when it rains and reveling in this season of squashes, I bring you a particularly autumnal, delicious, simple, very orange soup.
May you, too, be warm, well fed and fully present wherever you are.
Roasted Squash Soup with Cumin
Adapted (heavily) from Amanda Hesser’s The Essential New York Times Cookbook
The original recipe calls for butternut squash. This yields a lovely soup, as does acorn squash. Though I’ve not tried it yet, I can’t imagine kabocha squash would be anything but wonderful as well. Considering the differing sweetness of these squashes and people’s varying preferences, I’ve given a range for the sugar. Regardless, this isn’t a very sweet soup, which I appreciate.
If you’re in too much of a hurry, as I often am, you will burn your fingers as you try to scoop the flesh of the squash out of the skins. It is worth waiting for them to cool somewhat! Or, prepare the squash to this point a few hours or up to one day ahead of time.
Excellent topping options include the toasted squash seeds (instructions follow), chives, any fresh herbs you might have on hand, a drizzle of olive oil and yogurt. If you want a richer soup, add 1/2 cup of heavy cream after blending.
1 large butternut, acorn or kabocha squash (about 2-3 pounds)
salt + pepper
2 teaspoons cumin, divided
4 1/2 cups vegetable broth or water
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1/2 – 2 teaspoons sugar
pinch ancho chili powder / cayenne pepper
chives / fresh herbs for serving, optional
plain yogurt for serving, optional
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment or foil.
With a large knife, split the squash in half lengthwise. Scoop out and reserve the seeds. Rub the cut sides of the squash with oil and sprinkle them with salt, pepper and 1/2 teaspoon of cumin. Place the squash halves on the baking sheet, cut sides down, and roast until very tender, about 30 to 45 minutes.
Toast the seeds (if desired) while the squash is cooking. Rinse them briefly under running water, drain well and toss with salt and pepper. (I think they turn out best when not entirely cleaned of the squash.) Place them on the pan next to the roasting squash halves, or on their own prepared baking sheet. Roast until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool.
When the squash is tender, remove from the oven and allow to cool until you are able to handle it without burning your fingers. Then, scoop the squash flesh from the skins and place it in a pot. Add the broth/water, garlic, vinegar, sugar, chili powder/cayenne pepper and remaining 1 1/2 teaspoon cumin. Bring to a boil and then lower the heat until the soup simmers. Let it cook, uncovered, for 10 minutes, and then remove the pot from the heat.
With an immersion blender, or in small batches with a traditional blender, puree the soup until smooth. Season with salt and pepper, and serve topped with squash seeds, chives, herbs and/or yogurt.
Yield: 3 substantial servings; 4 – 6 servings as a starter