A dash of whimsy goes into the freshly made soups at Pizza Oven in Bangor. Gary Jewell Jr., who operates the 25-year-old family-owned business with his mother, Kate, said he usually has music playing in the background as he prepares the ingredients for the soups featured on the menu from autumn through spring. During the prep work, he and his mother banter back and forth.
That fun, relaxed atmosphere is to him the key to creating good food.
“I think it ends up making it much better,” he said.
On this day, Jewell is making butternut squash soup, a simple recipe that is a favorite with his customers. It also was part of the trio of soups offered earlier this month as Pizza Oven switched from its weekly salad special for summer to its weekly soup specials. The other two soups were chili and corn chowder.
“Most of our soups are … pretty easy to do,” he said.
As Jewell peeled and cubed the butternut squash, chopped the onions and sliced the carrots, he talked about purchasing the Lincoln Street business and reopening it in July 2006. He has worked at a variety of jobs over the years, including a stint at Eastern Maine Medical Center as an anesthesia technician and at Bangor International Airport for the Transportation Security Administration.
But there came a day when the family noticed a Burger King for sale, and it got them thinking about going into the business of cooking.
Not long after, they opened Pa’s Pizza and More in Searsport. It was there that they learned the pizza business, with assistance from a guy named Gil from Original Pizza of Boston, who came for several days to show them the best way to make the mainstay of their menu.
For the rest of his culinary skills, Jewell is quick to credit one person.
“I learned most of what I do from my mother,” he said. “There is no better education.”
It was Kate Jewell who started looking into businesses for sale after the family had been running the Searsport business for a couple of years. She found Pizza Oven was on the market, and the family decided to take over the management of the longtime Bangor business.
The menu has the usual pizza and sandwich items but includes a unique selection of favorite pizzas such as baked potato pizza, Big Mac pizza and chicken and broccoli Alfredo pizza. The weekly seasonal specials have ranged from sandwiches such as the Swimming Sow (tuna and bacon on garlic-toasted bread), to salads such as the Hawaiian (with pineapple, ham and mandarin oranges), to soups such as Italian Wedding (with spinach, pasta and handmade meatballs).
“Everything starts with our taste and then we develop it for other people,” he said.
As he talked, Jewell finished the vegetables for the butternut squash soup — he recommends a sharp knife for peeling the raw squash with its hard rind — which he mixed up in a large saucepan before adding low-salt chicken broth.
After the mixture comes to a boil, the vegetables need to simmer for 40 minutes until the squash and carrots are soft enough to puree.
Jewell usually makes a double batch of this soup, which will keep for several days. Reheating it in the microwave takes only a couple of minutes, although it could be heated in a pan over low heat on the stove. The soup also freezes well as a single serving, making it easy to heat up.
Once the vegetables are cooked, Jewell purees the batch a bit at a time in a blender with the butter before pouring it back into the saucepan and adding the light cream.
One taste of the finished soup and the flavors of fall are back.
“People should try this at home,” Jewell said.
The taste of the soup will vary between cooks. “It’s never going to be exactly the same, anyway, because everybody does stuff just a little bit different,” he said.
Just remember the whimsy.
Butternut Squash Soup
Makes about 6 servings.
2 pounds butternut squash, halved, peeled, seeded and cut into 1-inch pieces*
1½ cups diced onion
2 carrots, peeled and diced
3 (13¾-ounce) cans chicken broth
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
½ cup light or heavy cream
Sour cream, for garnish
In medium saucepan, combine squash, onion, carrots, broth and salt. Bring to a boil and then simmer uncovered until squash is very tender, about 40 minutes.
Puree soup in a blender or food processor with the butter.
Whisk cream into soup.
Serve with a dollop of sour cream, if desired.
* 4 cups of cubed squash weighs about 1 pound 7 ounces. Remember when purchasing the squash to buy a bit more than 2 pounds because the peel and seeds will be removed.