On the hunt for an exceptional holiday soup, one with substance, bold flavor and strong tradition, I find myself at—of all places—a daycare center in the outskirts of Montreal.
It's naptime when I arrive. My host and the daycare's cook, Sophia Sanon, ushers me past cubbyholes to a small kitchen where she has prepared a feast. It's a panoply of Haitian dishes: griot—fried bits of braised pork—on smashed slices of fried plantain; a baguette topped with chiquetaille, an intensely salty pickled cod salad; the makings for pikliz, a tangy scotch bonnet pepper-spiked slaw; and—most importantly—soup joumou.
I'm here looking for a taste of this celebrated pumpkin soup. Joumou commemorates Haiti's Independence Day, when the island nation was formally established in 1804, marking the end of a successful, years-long rebellion by enslaved Africans.
Made with West Indian pumpkin (better known as calabaza squash), joumou consists of a spiced pumpkin broth, deeply seasoned beef and tender-cooked vegetables. It was prepared by slaves for their French overlords, but they were forbidden from tasting it until they gained independence. Today, it's as essential to Haiti's New Year's Day celebrations as Champagne is elsewhere.
Sanon moved from Haiti to Quebec—the Francophone province has a sizable community of Haitian immigrants—when she was 12. She remembers the exact date and day of the week: Wednesday, Feb. 14, 1996. Her well-to-do father didn't want her to learn how to cook, but on trips back to Haiti, her grandmother would teach her on the sly. In 2009, she left nursing school to start her own catering company. Work at the daycare supplements that income—and today, it also provides a larger space for her to prepare joumou.
The soup begins in two pots. First, the meat: Sanon massages hunks of beef with a blend of lime, vinegar and the juice of bitter Seville oranges, a step meant to mute any off flavors in the beef. She then tosses the meat with epis—Haiti's answer to sofrito or mirepoix, a potent raw paste made with parsley, cilantro, thyme, bell peppers, scallions, garlic, vinegar and oil. Once seasoned, the beef is set on the stovetop to braise. As they cook, the citrus juices and the epis simmer into a flavorful liquid that will contribute deep flavor to the joumou.
Meanwhile, the pumpkin broth: Sanon roasts quarters of calabaza and butternut squash until tender. She purees them in a food processor, then dilutes the mixture with boiling water and strains it to make a velvety broth.
Once the beef is done, it's fished out and set aside. Into its braising liquid go the vegetables—leeks, celery, carrots, potatoes, cabbage—and pasta. (In Haiti, the number of ingredients can indicate wealth, so joumou is often heavy with additions.) Finally, the pumpkin broth is added and the soup simmers to completion.
As Sanon buzzes together scotch bonnet peppers and lime juice for pikliz, I sit down to taste the joumou. It's rich yet bright, savory and hearty. There's a subtle spiciness that's head-turning. I peer into the stockpot and spy the culprit: a clove-studded scotch bonnet that suffuses the joumou with typical Haitian heat.
At Milk Street, we wanted to preserve the deep flavors in joumou's beef and broth, but also lighten it and pare down the number of ingredients. And we wanted a one-pot process.
First, we developed meaty flavor by braising our beef with chicken broth instead of epis. After setting the beef aside, we made the soup's base in the same pot. Instead of cooking squash, we streamlined with a common holiday ingredient: pumpkin puree. We sautéed it with leeks and garlic then added chicken stock. After a simmer, we strained the liquid for a smooth, thin broth.
To impart the same spicy backdrop to our joumou, we used two clove-pierced chilies (one for the beef and one for the broth). We also wanted to include butternut squash, but we opted to cube it and add it to the soup along with cubed potatoes. Simmered until tender, the lightly sweet squash balanced the spice and the savoriness. Though our joumou is lighter in body than most traditional recipes, it's a soup we'll have seconds and even thirds of—something to celebrate