Reinforcement

Reinforcement

(For my friend, the Gastronomer…and the best behaviorist I know)

There is something special about cooking something with ingredients from one’s own garden. This year was a terrible one for tomatoes, or I would have at least a couple dozen quarts of tomato sauce in mason jars downstairs, as in other years. This year, I barely managed enough tomatoes to eat fresh, and some of my varieties did not produce at all, except nasty fruits mottled with diseases. Three years ago, I had 18 different varieties of tomato, and put up sauce in different shades: white brandywine, yellow low-acid, and loads of beautiful red sauces. This year…nothing. No tomatoes, anyway.

Green beans did a wonderful job, though. I planted too many of them, because I had planted too few too often. Some went to waste this year, giant hulking green beans that had grown beyond the tender stage to the “I dare you” stage. And herbs…my herbs were beautiful and fragrant. I made pesto, and herb jams, and dried herbs…and I managed to harvest the basil before the first frost this year.

The only other thing that grew was my Hubbard Squash. And yes, the use of the singular is intentional, as only one squash grew to full size. Two other mutant dwarfs were harvested, but all others fell prey to squash beetles.

But it is the squash I wanted to talk about, specifically, today. A few years ago, with a bumper crop of beautiful blue squash, I experimented with several different recipes for squash soup, eventually hitting upon one which I am quite fond of. I will share two different versions of the recipe (and variations), and talk a bit about why one version is invariably so much better than the other.

Squash Soup, version 1:

Hubbard Squash—peeled and seeded, chopped into 1-inch chunks, about 3 pounds.
Onion—good pungent Spanish onion, not a sweet onion—1 large, or 2 small, chopped.
Garlic—2-3 cloves, chopped.
Stock—sufficient to cover the squash in a saucepan. Vegetable or chicken both work.
Half and half—or light or heavy cream, from 1 cup to more, to taste and thickness.
Salt and pepper.
Olive oil

For (optional, but highly recommended) garnish:
Roasted red peppers—pureed, in olive oil.
Walnuts, chopped
Parmesan Reggiano, grated

In a stockpot, saute the garlic and onion in olive oil until soft. Add the chunks of squash, cover with stock, and boil until tender (15-30 minutes, depending on ripeness and variety of squash). Mash or puree squash (or, for a more textured soup, simply stir well to break up chunks into a thick, lumpy mess), adding more stock, if needed. At this point, the soup can sit for some time if you have other things to cook. It will take very little time to finish up. To finish, stir in half-and-half or cream (or if watching fat, additional stock as well) to the desired soup consistency. Season with salt and pepper; stir well. Serve with pureed pepper, chopped walnuts, and grated parmesan floated on top.

Variations I have tried include substituting evaporated milk for the half-and-half or cream (if you never tried the original, you’d never miss the fat; if you tried the original, evaporated milk does not do quite the same job), substituting lobster stock for chicken or vegetable (a wonderful variation; here on the North Atlantic coast, I will try adding some cooked lobster meat next time, too). I do not recommend substituting sweet onion; too much flavor is lost.

This soup is wonderful; I have received compliments on it every time I have served it. It was a first course for Thanksgiving for a family gathering a few years ago, and earned a place on the “ok, we will have this every year from now on” list.

But there is a way to make it taste even better.

Squash Soup, version 2:

In mid-October to late November of previous year, plant your garlic. For this soup, I recommend a hard-neck garlic, which is more fun to grow, anyway (since you can harvest the garlic scape and eat it, too). Keep them well-mulched over winter, and water them well during the spring. When the leaves turn brown, harvest them. Most folks will tell you to dry and age the garlic before using it; they are probably right, but I like to use fresh garlic as well, for its own taste. For this soup, aged is preferred, but some new adds other flavor.

The following spring, plant your onions and squash. You may wish to get a jump on growth by planting the squash seeds in containers indoors before the danger of frost is gone, and transplanting your seedlings to the garden after any such danger is over. Remember, this squash plant needs a lot of room! Vines of 10 feet in each direction are not unheard of! Feed with plenty of compost, and water well; these are hungry and thirsty plants. Keep a close watch over them, especially in their early growth; you may wish to cover them with a row cover, to keep those nasty borer beetles at bay. If you wish, you may harvest some of the copious flowers; they are delicious sautéed with those garlic scapes! Don’t become complacent once the squash fruits appear—those beetles are nasty little creatures. Fortunately, the onions will look after themselves; keep them fed and watered, but they are relatively low-maintenance.

It is a long process, I admit. At least I don’t ask you to raise your own chickens, or catch your own lobster. (Although, in truth, the soup will taste better if you do. I am serious. Yes, I will explain.)

By late October, at least in this growing zone, your garlic will be dried (unless you left some in the ground), the onions will be harvested, and the squash will be the size of your head…or larger. When its stem is dry, harvest the squash. Let it dry a bit (a couple of days at minimum) in the garden, or somewhere outside, before bringing it in to store or to cook. Everything should be ready to cook the soup for Halloween, and it will stay in absolute peak condition at least through Christmas. Actually, all these ingredients should be fantastic through Spring, but I have never had any left by then; this soup is just too good during cold winter evenings. Just follow the steps in Version 1.

If you use ingredients from your own garden, the soup will taste better. Period. And it is not (merely) because the ingredients are fresh; it will taste better if it comes from your garden than if it comes from your neighbor’s, harvested the same day.

Trust me.

The science behind it…

I recently found a paper of B.F.Skinner’s (1986) that I had not seen before, entitled “What Is Wrong With Daily Life in the Western World?” In it, Skinner discusses the problems inherent in the success of Western society. Yes, there are global problems of hunger, violence, the possibility of war, and Skinner does not dismiss these, but the relatively affluent and successful Western culture brings with it its own set of problems. These are problems that arise not from want, but from plenty; not from plague, but from health; not from adversity, but from bountiful success. A strange sort of problems, indeed.

There are many things wrong with the world today, but they do not disturb everyone. Overpopulation, the impoverishment and pollution of the environment, and even the possibility of a nuclear war are often dismissed as matters to be dealt with in the fairly distant future. Poverty, illness, and violence are current problems, but not for everyone. Many of those who live in the Western democracies enjoy a reasonable degree of affluence, freedom, and security. But they have problems of their own. In spite of their privileges, many of them are bored, listless, or depressed. They are not enjoying their lives. They do not like what they are doing; they are not doing what they like to do. In a word, they are unhappy. That is not the most serious problem in the world, but it could be said to be an ultimate one. Most of the world looks forward to enjoying some approximation of the Western life-style when they have solved their other problems. Is there not something more promising in the future of the species?

What has this to do with squash soup? Everything, actually. Our behaviors, in the Western world, tend to be reinforced in inefficient manners. We are paid every two weeks, the same amount, whether it has been a good two weeks or a horrible two weeks. The rewards (not reinforcers) we receive are, to some extent, independent of our behavior. We work for money, which we pay to someone who grew the squash, rather than working for the squash. We work on an inefficient interval schedule, where the time passed, rather than the work done, determines whether we get paid. When we are reinforced for the work done (rather than for the time passed), we take advantage of the schedule of reinforcement that built Las Vegas. Gambling takes place on a variable ratio schedule, and the most casual observer can see that gambling interests people more than their bi-weekly paycheck does.

Reinforcement for what we do, rather than for the time it takes us to do it, builds stronger behavior. And what is enjoyment, beyond a desire to continue doing something? When we are reinforced directly for doing something, the reinforcers are more powerful. When we do something ourselves, rather than do something else in order to pay someone else to do something for us (did that parse?), we enjoy it more. Yes, it can be easier to pay someone else. But, again quoting Skinner, “people who avoid labor and have things done for them escape from many aversive consequences, but beyond a certain point they deprive themselves of strengthening consequences as well.

The more you do for yourself, the more you are directly reinforced for your actions, and the more you enjoy your soup.

Grow for yourself! Cook for yourself! Entertain your guests for yourself!

You will thank me for it.

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