The Center brings you Butternut Squash and Leek Soup (March 28, 2011)

Originally published in Keeping the Feast, March 2004.

The kitchen at The Center is always a hub of activity. The scent of warming food is the first greeting clients and friends get when they stop by. A seat in the wide and generous dining area is always available and the food is as it should be, comforting and good.

It’s been that way since 1992 when Father Bob Kaeding, pastor of St. Anselm Parish, Wayside, and a group of volunteers opened the doors for the first time of an organization known far and wide for its ability to meet the needs of those in the greater Asbury Park area affected by HIV/AIDS.

Back then, Father Kaeding, who enjoys cooking and wishes he had more time for it, would have a pot of soup on the stove everyday for those coming in for help with their needs.

This week, he offers his Lenten recipe for Butternut-Squash and Leek Soup that is tasty and colorful.

“Sharing warm soup and a loaf of good bread is a wonderful exchange,” Father Kaeding said. “It’s feeding people on many levels.”

Over time, the menu expanded thanks to the many volunteers who cook their favorite dishes at home and bring them to The Center to share and keep the generous food pantry stocked.

There are five or six freezers filled with dinners brought in by area churches that are delivered to the homes of those unable to come into The Center.

It’s a bustling operation, one that makes everyone involved feel good, Father Kaeding said.

“It makes it fun. People talk in the kitchen while the food is warming up. They sit down and talk to each other while they are eating,” he said. “It all works for everyone involved. The clients need the nutrition and the volunteers know that their efforts are having a direct benefit.”

The warmth that knowledge brings is palpable, said Father Kaeding who spoke of a recent contribution that touched everyone.

“We have one lady for instance who brings in food regularly,” he said. “She’s wonderful. A few months ago, she said she would bring in a dish that was her husband’s favorite on his birthday.

“She’d never mentioned her husband before and when she brought this dish in, she explained that he had been dead for some time. Cooking his favorite dish on his birthday and bringing it to The Center is her way of celebrating his birthday. Her way of remembering him was to feed people.”

Appropriately enough, food is at the heart of many fundraisers for The Center. On May 7, one of the most popular fund raisers, Center a la Carte, an annual gourmet tasting dinner, will bring 500 people to St. Anselm Parish to sample the signature dishes and beverages of 25 of the Shore’s finest restaurants and caterers.

Center a la Carte tickets are $75 each and can be reserved in advance by calling 732-946-2711.

“Nearly 100 percent of the night’s proceeds go directly toward our support services,” Father Kaeding said. “This year, we raised the ticket price for the first time in many years to help build CenterHouse and continue the mission of The Center.”

In addition to continuing to provide meals, counseling, transportation, referrals, financial aid and assistance with day-to-day living, The Center plans to build 25 apartments at its Asbury Park site to house those with HIV/AIDS.

“It will be the first and only facility of its kind to provide housing in Monmouth County,” Father Kaeding said. “We are looking to break ground this year.”

The gourmet feast is a way down the road.

During Lent, meals are simple, both at The Center and at St. Anselm Parish, said Father Kaeding who enjoys the pared down menu. “It’s the idea that you are not fasting alone but with other people,” he said. “It’s Lent not as an individual journey but a communal one.”

    Butternut-Squash and Leek Soup 

  • 4 ½ lb. butternut squash, halved lengthwise, seeds removed
  • 5 tbsp. butter
  • 4 leeks, white and light-green parts only, split lengthwise, washed well and chopped (about 4 cups)
  • 1tsp. dried thyme
  • 5 cups vegetable stock
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 3 tbsp. chopped fresh chives

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Put the squash cut side down on a baking sheet and bake until tender, about 40 minutes. Let cool slightly and then scoop out the flesh. Meanwhile, in a large pot, melt the butter over moderately low heat. Add the leeks and thyme and cook, stirring occasionally until soft and beginning to brown, about 15 minutes.

Add the squash and the stock to the pot and simmer 20 minutes. Puree the soup in a food processor or blender. Pour the soup back into the pot and season with 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. If the soup is too thick, add as much water as needed it to thin it to your taste. Add more salt and pepper as needed. Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream and sprinkle with chives.

The soup can be prepared several days ahead and refrigerated. Simply reheat when ready to serve. Serves 8.

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