While some kids are all about pizza or chicken fingers, chef Kimberly Tilsen-Brave Heart’s nine-year-old daughter’s favorite food is soup.
Odds are, that’s thanks to Tilsen-Brave Heart’s array of creative and comforting soup recipes, including her signature butternut squash, pumpkin and coconut bisque. It’s been lauded as “magic” by customers of her Etiquette Catering company in Rapid City, South Dakota.
The soup, as with many of the dishes she makes, has a deep connection to her Native American heritage and the Pine Ridge Reservation in southern South Dakota where she was born.
“I’m considered Oglala Lakota—most people who aren’t familiar with Native people would call a Sioux, but that’s not something that we call ourselves,” says Tilsen-Brave Heart. “Anytime I eat the three sisters—squash, beans or corn—it reminds me of where I come from and my people.”
Her recipe was inspired by a soup that her mother used to make and employs two types of squash, coconut milk, butter and spices. It’s become a staple that her own family eats several times a month.
Both she and her husband Brandon, who is Northern Cheyenne, love cooking, but neither had ever intended to make a career out of it. After Brandon suffered a life-threatening work accident that culminated in a grand mal seizure, however, he left his job and they had to regroup.
“I said to him, you know, it’s an opportunity to talk about our culture in a way that is attainable for the average person,” says Tilsen-Brave Heart. “Food is a way to connect with a culture of people without it being intimidating. He really liked that idea.”
They started Etiquette Catering on January 1, 2018, and Tilsen-Brave Heart’s menus have been largely inspired by both her Lakota and Jewish heritage. She learned how to make traditional Lakota dishes during summers spent with her mother Joann Tall at the Pine Ridge Reservation. After moving with her father to Minnesota at age five, she also learned many cooking techniques and traditional dishes from her paternal grandmother Rachel Tilsen.
“My grandmother is Jewish and taught me how to make matzo ball soup at a very young age,” says Tilsen-Brave Heart. “I’m probably one of the only Lakota Jews that you’ve ever met in your life.”
Dishes on Tilsen-Brave Heart’s lunch and catering menus include bison meatballs with blackberry wojapi (a traditional Native American sauce), lentil soup and, of course, her rich and restorative “magic” squash soup.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit last March, she was also able to use her connections to the community and her wholesale partners to raise more than $60,000 throughout 2020, all of which was used to purchase meat, fresh fruit and vegetables each month for Reservation Elders. So far, Etiquette has donated more than 70,000 pounds of fresh produce and Tilsen-Brave Heart plans to continue this throughout 2021. “Pine Ridge is considered a food desert—the nearest grocery store is 81 miles away,” she says. “This [allowed] people to have really healthy foods that helps their immune systems and also helps them to stay home and stay safe.”
Tilsen-Brave Heart hopes to expand this project by launching a non-profit that will provide fresh, hot foods to the Reservation with a continued focus on local ingredients.
“Squash was a huge portion of our diet traditionally. Adding elements of cultural connectedness and identity to those historical ingredients I think really empowers people,” she says. “I really believe that there is healing power in it.”
Here is Tilsen-Brave Heart’s recipe and tips for making her restorative and creamy pumpkin and butternut squash soup.
To give this soup its rich hue and flavor, Tilsen-Brave Heart calls on a classic duo: butternut squash and pumpkin.
“Butternut squash is an amazing ingredient and I think that [the pumpkin] gives it this very like earthy, magical flavor,” she says. “For some reason, I don’t think that most people recognize that you can roast pumpkin all-year-round and make it into something beautiful.”
She says that, if you have the space, all sorts of squash varieties are incredibly easy to grow and produce an abundant harvest each year. “If you grow it fresh, it has so much more flavor. It has so much more body,” she says. “If you can’t grow it yourself, buy from farmers markets. If you can’t do that, buy organic because the flavor really is a huge difference.”
Butternut squash and many varieties of pumpkin are native to North America, and one of the chef’s favorite varieties to include in her soup is Hubbard squash—a pale blue heirloom variety that “is humongous and looks like a dinosaur,” she says. However, pumpkins and other specialty squashes are often difficult to find in stores at certain times of the year, so she’ll instead use a can of organic pumpkin puree.
To prepare the squash for the soup, Tilsen-Brave Heart first peels, cubes and tosses it with olive oil, garlic powder, kosher salt and cracked black pepper, then roasts it in the oven until tender. For a bit more depth, she’ll also often add cinnamon to her spice blend when making the soup at home—pumpkin and cinnamon, after all, are a tried and true match.
Tilsen-Brave Heart then sautés a diced yellow onion with spices in plenty of butter. The roasted squash is added next and she “lets that melt down a little bit.” It’s followed by the canned pumpkin. “You’ll see it really starting to develop and getting thick,” she says. “Then I put in the broth—I always make my own bone broth, which I try to do at least once a month.”
However, it’s incredibly easy to make this soup vegetarian by subbing in vegetable stock. The same goes for the coconut cream, which is the final ingredient and can be easily replaced with cashew cream. “The cashew cream just [gives it] this really warm, nutty flavor,” she says.
The beauty of this recipe is not only its simplicity, but also its versatility. “If you wanted to, you could also add whole canned tomatoes,” Tilsen-Brave Heart says. “It would add a really beautiful color and flavor.” To do so, drain the juice from the tomatoes directly into the soup mixture and then roast the whole tomatoes on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and seasoned with olive oil, salt, garlic and “maybe even a little bit of oregano” for 10 minutes. Then, she adds them into the simmering soup mixture for about 10 minutes before using an immersion blender to create a uniform creamy consistency.
She likes to finish the soup by drizzling a little bit of olive oil on top and adding a few roasted pumpkin seeds. “I really like roasted pumpkin seeds because I’m a texture person,” she says. “When you have the bite with the creaminess of the soup, and then a little bit of the saltiness and the crunch of the roasted pumpkin seed, it’s just a really nice treat.”
- 1 large Butternut squash, peeled and cubed
- 1 tbsp Garlic powder
- Kosher salt
- Black pepper
- Olive oil
- 1 stick Butter
- 1 medium Yellow onion
- 1 15 oz can Organic pumpkin puree
- 2 cups Coconut milk
- 4 cups Chicken or vegetable stock
- Roasted pumpkin seeds
- Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
- In a large bowl, toss the butternut squash with olive oil and season it with garlic powder, kosher salt and cracked black pepper. Place it on a rimmed baking sheet and roast it for 20 minutes.
- In a large pot over medium heat, melt the butter and then add the onion, sprinkling it with salt and cook until translucent.
- Add the pumpkin puree, coconut milk, stock and roasted butternut squash to the pot and simmer for at least 30 minutes, stirring occasionally so it doesn’t char.
- Remove the pot from the heat and blend the soup until smooth with an immersion blender.
- Top with a drizzle of olive oil and roasted pumpkin seeds.