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Healthy meals on the cheap: Carver’s chef visits food bank, turns squashes into soup

Brian McLachlan wants to show how food-insecure families can eat healthy on a budget
Carver Brewing Co.’s chef Brian McLachlan uses ingredients from the Durango Food Bank to teach cooking skills and highlight resources for food-insecure families. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

Many see winter squash as just a decoration. Even more see overripe pears as trash. Carver Brewing Co.’s chef Brian McLachlan sees these items as an opportunity to make soup.

In an effort to teach skills and highlight resources for families who may be food insecure, McLachlan toured the Durango Food Bank to create a meal that would feed a family of four using only items available at the food bank.

“Cooking is not as scary as some people might think,” he said. “With a couple basic tools you can create something beautiful. It just requires a little practice.”

McLachlan almost immediately gravitated toward the food bank’s selection of squash. Before deciding on a soup, he knew he wanted to use winter squash as an ingredient. He said it is in season, and that he thinks people are sometimes afraid to cook them.

“Squashes come in all different varieties and you don’t always know what they are,” he said. They’re a little big and scary, and they don’t always have names.”

When McLachlan came across a basket of soft, brown, overripe pears, he knew he was making soup. He wanted to use the natural sugars of the pears to bring out the flavor of the squash.

Carver Brewing Co.'s chef Brian McLachlan’s first stop when building a family recipe at the Durango Food Bank was the winter squashes. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

“On the outside, they look like garbage, but they’re fine. As soon as we get below the surface, I’ll have a really nice bit of pear,” he said. “These are going to have the highest sugar content and the most pear flavor.”

To thicken his soup, McLachlan picked out a large can of pinto beans from the food bank.

Other canned ingredients included a can of condensed milk and a can of coconut cream to garnish the soup. He also snagged a quart of chicken stock.

“I’m using beans as a base to increase the protein and health content of the soup,” he said.

A good alternative to beans as a soup thickener would be potatoes, he said.

Part of the reason McLachlan chose to make a soup was to make a one pot meal, to put an emphasis on simplicity and easy cleanup.

According to the food bank, there are an estimated 6,420 people in La Plata County who miss at least one meal a day.

Durango Food Bank Executive Director Sarah Smith said there are between 80 and 125 households that use the food bank on a weekly basis.

“Most of our clients are family units or senior households, and they’re struggling to get by,” she said. “They’re just falling short for whatever reason.”

La Plata County families who may need assistance that the food bank provides can schedule an appointment on the Durango Food Bank’s website.

Smith said a significant barrier to healthier meals for many families using the food bank is a lack of knowledge when it comes to fresh produce.

“They’re focused primarily on products that are canned, boxed and prepackaged items. So not necessarily healthier items,” she said. “Kale or squash for example, are really difficult items to get out to families because there is an educational component that is lacking.”

To promote the use of fresh produce, the food bank puts no limit on the amount of produce families can take when they come to shop.

McLachlan said cost shouldn’t be a barrier for those who are thinking about honing their cooking skills.

“Great food is not about caviar and truffle oil,” he said. “Cooking is essential to every home and every family, and it’s usually done with the most basic ingredients.”

A donation by Carver’s was made to replace the items that McLachlan used for his recipe.

Making the soup

McLachlan began making his soup by halving his three squashes and putting them peel side up in an oven at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

To begin his squash soup, Carver Brewing Co. chef Brian McLachlan halves and bakes squashes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

“Your squash is done when it’s soft to the touch,” he said. “When you can poke through it with your finger, it’s ready.”

Once the squash was in the oven, McLachlan began making a sauteed mix of onions and garlic. Onion activates people’s noses, he said.

“No matter what you’re cooking, as soon as you add the onions, someone comes over and asks, ‘What are you cooking? That smells good,’” he said.

While the garlic and onions were cooking he started peeling the brown pears, and cutting out anything that didn’t look quite right under the skin.

Putting his peeled pears aside for now, McLachlan dumped a 40-ounce can of pinto beans into the pot with his onions and garlic. Finishing off his soup base, he also added the quart of chicken stock.

Once the squash is soft, Carver Brewing Co. chef Brian McLachlan scoops the meat off the peels of the squash to add to his soup. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

After about 40 minutes in the oven, he let the squash cool off a bit, and scooped the meat from the peel with a spoon.

The cleaned pears and squash then went directly into the stock pot. McLachlan then used a stick blender to puree everything.

“Stick blenders have gotten really affordable in the past few years, but if you can’t puree it, you don’t have to,” he said. “Just leave it chunky.”

McLachlan emphasized that it is important for home cooks to taste as they go. The best advice he said he could offer a home cook was add salt and vinegar, and to be patient and persistent.

“Whenever you’re cooking and you’re thinking, ‘What does this need,’ the answer is usually salt or vinegar,” he said. “If you’re missing that little bit of bite on the front of your mouth, those are the two things that you look at right away.”

McLachlan then ladled the soup into bowls, and garnished the tops with a can of coconut milk, ground black pepper and fresh green onions.

Carver Brewing Co. chef Brian McLachlan’s pear and squash soup, garnished with coconut milk, ground black pepper and freshly chopped green onions. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)
Drawn to the kitchen

McLachlan grew up in Durango. His first job working with food was at Subway when he was 16. He continued to work at different eateries through college while studying to become an engineer.

After three days working as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Golden, he said he decided he was in love with the kitchen scene.

“Once I got into a big professional kitchen with all the cool things going on, and all the good smells, it struck me as something I could do for a living,” he said.

From there, McLachlan moved to Breckenridge and worked his way up to a sous chef position at a restaurant.

Carver Brewing Co. chef Brian McLachlan plates his pear and squash soup made with items from the Durango Food Bank to show what food-insecure families can do with simple ingredients. (Nicholas A. Johnson/Durango Herald)

For a brief period he decided he wanted to use his engineering degree, but found he didn’t enjoy sitting behind a desk.

“It turns out I really don’t like engineering,” he said. “I had a hard time working at a desk, and working at that day after day didn’t bring me joy.”

With his dreams fully actualized, McLachlan moved to Denver and worked in a number of different professional kitchens to improve his cooking skills.

After moving around a bit more, and coming back to Durango for a year, he settled in Santa Fe for three years with his wife.

He came back to the Durango area to be near his family a couple of years ago. He said he’s happy as the head chef at Carver’s, and plans to be there for a while.

“As long as I’m going to be around here, this is going to be my permanent thing in Durango. I really love it here at Carver’s,” he said.

What McLachlan enjoys most about being a chef is making people happy, he said.

“Being able to transform a raw ingredient into a meal is a really beautiful process for me,” he said. “Then at the end of what we do I get to make a ton of people happy, and present our labor of love to the guest.”

He said cooking food for strangers is really not all that different from cooking at home, it’s just on a much larger scale.

“If you’ve ever made a dish that made your mom really happy, that’s the same moment I’m chasing every day,” he said.


Chef Brian McLachlan’s Pear and Squash Soup
  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Place three large winter squashes that have been scooped clean of seeds peel side up on a baking sheet and cook for 40 minutes or until flesh is soft to the touch
  • Slice 2 yellow onions
  • Mince 5 cloves of garlic
  • Melt half a stick of butter over medium heat until garlic and onions soften and begin to smell.
  • Meanwhile, peel and scoop out the seeds from 3 pears. Soft pears offer more sweetness and pear flavor
  • Once garlic and onions are soft and aromatic, add to pot a 40-ounce can of cooked pinto beans
  • Add to pot 1 quart of chicken stock, and 1 quart of water
  • Add one 14-ounce can of sweetened condensed milk
  • Season with a quarter cup of cider vinegar and 2 tablespoons of salt
  • Once the squash is fully cooked and cool enough to handle, scrape the cooked flesh out with a large spoon. Add squash flesh and pears to the soup pot, and bring to a simmer.
  • The soup can be pureed with a stick blender, or food processor. Or it can be left chunky. Simply stirring until the beans, squash, and pears all break down is another option.
  • Adjust the flavor to your liking. Suggested seasonings include more salt, more cider vinegar, chili powder, granulated garlic, ginger, coriander or oregano.
  • Garnish the soup with condensed coconut milk, ground black pepper and freshly chopped green onions. Other suggested garnishes include bacon or any other cooked meat, or nuts.

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