A limited vocabulary

sweet potato and butternut squash soupPart One

Kyle and I disagree about the vitamins. While I try to forget them at the grocery store, he patiently searches the bottle each morning, finding hippos for Jacob and lions for Lucas. He sets the tiny sugar-chalk creatures next to their breakfast dishes – oatmeal, pancakes, cinnamon toast. Only Daddy knows how to make these things. Monday morning, Jacob sat down at the table.

“Where’s my vitamin?” 

Kyle and I look at him, at each other. “What?”

“My vitamin. Where did it go?”

“What do you mean, where did it go? It was right there by your plate.”


“Mouth.” It was the little voice from the other end of the table. We all turned to see big hazel eyes gazing back at us. “Mouth,” Lucas said again. And then he opened wide and pointed down his throat. In case we didn’t get it.



Part Two

When Jacob is at school or otherwise gone missing, it is a confused query: “Jay Jay?”

When Jacob is hitting him/kicking him/whacking him with a train track, it is a tearful wail: “Jaaaay Jaaaay!”

When Jacob is racing riotous loops through the house, top-of-lungs singing into his imaginary microphone, it is an admiring shout: “JayJay!”

When Jacob is co-opting one of the members of Lucas’s beloved menagerie, it is a heartbroken keening: “Jaaayjaaay …”


When Lucas has found something wonderful that belongs to his big brother and beelines into my lap, clutching it, it is a worried whisper: “Jay Jay.”

When we tuck them in at night and he gazes across the room to where Jacob stretches out in his big boy bed, it is a contented sigh: “Jay Jay …”

And if we ever make a mistake and try to put him to bed when Jacob is still up and about, it is a furious reprimand: “JAY JAY!”

Part Three

eNO Mama!

“Lucas, do you need a clean diaper?”

“eNO diaper! eNO poo poo!”


“Lucas, let’s read something other than Down by the Station.”

“eNO! Station!”


“Lucas, you need cozy long pants. It’s chilly out.”

“eNO! Dees! Dees pants!” (holding up his favorite madras shorts)


“Lucas, Mommy is going to make you breakfast today.”



Part Four

Small, but mighty. Words morph and grow and become clear, and new groupings are found. He has dozens, hundreds now. And he can wring the most extraordinary meaning out of his 2- and 3- and 4- word sentences. Like when he crawls into my “bap-bap” and curls up and sighs forlornly. “Kiss, Mama.”

Or when he smashes his face against mine, hard, and then laughs. “Kiss Mama!”

Part Five

Lucas will sing anything. When he doesn’t remember the words he does a lot of “La la la”ing. But his dance moves are flashy enough that you might not even notice.

Maybe it’s not such a limited vocabulary.

sweet potato and butternut squash soup

Sweet Potato and Butternut Squash Soup

Okay, so, on the subject of limited. It’s fall! Sweet potatoes, pumpkins, sturdy greens … and yes, I make a lot of butternut squash soup this time of year. It is usually some variation on this theme: onion, roasted squash, spices to fit the mood, cream or not, stick blender or pitcher blender. This soup though. This soup is a little different. The same words, sure. But it’s singing them. And it’s a song that might even make you dance.

Recently Kyle and I had our favorite tomato soup in the entire world for lunch (get it here) and then that night we had one for dinner that was arguably even better (that was here). We decided that what made them both so spectacular was the insanely velvety texture. That got me thinking about a tomato sauce Molly made over at remedial eating. She used a two-plate food-mill method – in her words, this process “lends your sauce a plush, velvety texture.” Well, if it’s good for the tomato …

Squash puree can fast find its way to babyfood territory, which is why the texture here needs to be taken BEYOND the smoothness of a puree, to something more … cloudlike. No really. Fluffy soup? You want it. The cayenne adds a little throat-tingle, but no real mouth burning heat. This tingle is intended to make it clear that you are eating something for grownups. Although my kids do like this soup.

A word on timing: I like to set squash to roast around lunch time usually. I cut them in half, scoop the seeds (see note below) and put them cut side up on baking sheets in the oven. No salt or oil or anything. Turn oven to 400 F, and leave it on for an hour. Turn it off. Leave the squash to sit in the oven. Come back and find it later that same night, once the kids are in bed. The squash will be caramelized and silky soft, easy to peel, and ready to make into soup. Since this soup requires a bit of hands-on time, it is nice to do at night anyway. Kyle and I chat, and he taste-tests, and it’s a fine way to go.  You can listen to this while you work, too. That’s the kind of mood I was in. (Can’t you just hear the extra dash of cayenne in that opening riff? :)

One final note: this is essentially a double batch of soup, one to eat and one to freeze (or keep on the stove for lunches and dinners for a couple days …). Cut it in half if you’d like. But you might be sorry.

2-3 tablespoons good olive oil
2 medium yellow onions, diced
2 large sweet potatoes, peeled and diced
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon allspice
2 teaspoons salt
1-2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
Optional: 2 teaspoons sugar

2 medium butternut squash, roasted and peeled

1 tablespoon butter

Additional salt and cayenne, to taste
3-4 tablespoons heavy cream or half-and-half

Optional, for serving: plain Greek yogurt, toasted and candied squash seeds**

In your heavy-bottomed soup pan of choice, heat olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, and cook down (if you have time to let the onions really caramelize, all the better). Add sweet potatoes, cinnamon, and all spice. Toss to coat and let toast for a minute or two until fragrant. At this point, add about half a cup of water. Stir it all around and deglaze the pan, then let it come to a boil. It will thicken and steam. Keep adding water and going through this process until your potato cubes are fork tender (about two cups of water and ten or fifteen minutes).

Once the potatoes are soft, add the salt, cayenne, and if you didn’t let the onions really caramelize to the point of sweetness, consider adding a teaspoon or two of sugar. Then add the roasted, peeled squash. Mash the squash down with a fork, mix everything together, thin with another cup of water, and let it all heat up. When it starts to bubble, turn off the heat and let it sit for ten minutes or so to cool down.

Once it is cool enough that a splash won’t hurt you, put it through your food mill into a big big bowl. Mill it twice, using the larger plate first and then the medium or small plate the second time. (You could also blend it instead, working in batches – there are no potato skins, so you will get a smooth result even from the blender – but not quite as uniformly velvety). One nice thing: since no seeds or skins are coming out, you don’t really lose much in the milling process. You just gain smoothness.

Once the double-milled puree is in the big big bowl, brown a tablespoon of butter in your soup pan. Once it is browned, add the puree back to the pot. Add about two cups more water, and stir well. Heat through to almost-boiling, then turn off the heat.

(Note: you could serve the soup at this point, if you had to. But it improves with age).

Put a lid on the pot, and refrigerate overnight.

The next evening, return the pot to the stove. Heat the soup through. Season to taste with more salt and cayenne (you’re after a throat tingle remember, not a mouth burn).

Just before serving, stir 3-4 tablespoons heavy cream through the soup. Mix well.

Serve topped with plain whole-milk Greek yogurt and candied squash seeds. And see if that doesn’t make your mouth sing. :)

** Candied squash seeds take this one over the top. To candy the seeds from any winter squash: remove seeds from the squash when you slice it for roasting (or carving). Wipe off any pulp/residue, but don’t rinse or wash them. If you have a toaster oven, you can dry them out there, otherwise use your oven – about thirty minutes at 250 F should do it if you are planning to use them soon. Once the seeds are dried, melt a tablespoon of butter in a small heavy skillet over medium heat. Add the seeds, plus a tablespoon of sugar and a pinch of salt. Toss well to coat the seeds and then cook until they begin to color, moving them around the pan. It will take a few minutes to cook them. Remove the pan from the heat, and let the seeds cool for a minute. Spread on parchment to finish cooling.

8 thoughts on “A limited vocabulary

  1. Oh, those little talkers are so sweet. And I love the chance to watch and hear language evolve, to hear what’s happening in those little brains struggle to come out. It’s pretty amazing. And I am so going to double-mill a batch of soup until it’s fluffy sometime soon.

    • Isn’t it the best, seeing how they piece it together? And so different one kid to the next. … Hey, speaking of fluffy soup, I made your lemony spinach soup last night. I wasn’t sure how velvety it would get, since I used some oldish beet greens and a big bunch of stemmy spinach – in fact I had a secret plan to add cream at the end. But it totally DID NOT need it – amazing!!!

      [And in case anyone is reading my rambling notes and now wants some soup for themselves, here is a link: http://emmycooks.com/2012/10/14/green-spinach-soup/ ]

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