Sunday, September 19, 2010

Cauliflower Soup

Algernon is particularly fond of muffins; I am more than equally fond of soup. Rarely does a weekend go by where I have not made enough soup for lunch and my following breakfast. In fact, I often wake up and make soup for breakfast. Why bother with oatmeal in the morning when you can eat soup?

Of the many excellent soup recipes I have collected, a number stand out. These share all the same qualities—a few simple ingredients that in a short amount of time transform into something delicious. These soups taste far better than such few humble ingredients have any right to taste. One example is the Potato and Leek Soup in Richard Olney’s Simple French Food [1974]. Another is the Cauliflower Soup in Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand [2003].

Cooking by Hand is a personal, thoughtful and truly outstanding cookbook. It shares a number of qualities with Olney’s Simple French Food and Fergus Henderson’s Nose to Tail series. Bertolli is passionate about cooking. He seeks to honor yet advance food traditions. The first section of his book, entitled Cleaning the Fresco, speaks to this theme. The cooking that makes sense to Bertolli is “food grounded in a tradition, yet enlivened by the act of greeting the process and the ingredients anew.” The recipes in this chapter include Vitello Tonnato, a poached veal loin served in a rich tuna sauce; Artichokes Braised in Olive Oil; Potato Gnocchi with Butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano; and his recipe for Cauliflower Soup.

What struck me when I first read his Cauliflower Soup recipe were its simple ingredients. The soup’s base is water. The only vegetables are onions and cauliflower (which, I learned, is rich in pectin that creates a “refined smoothness” when puréed). The only other ingredients are salt, pepper and olive oil. Bertolli says: “this soup is a good example of the austere requirements of certain foods: that the clearest expression of their flavor suggests adding next to nothing. This soup is plain but plainly good.”

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, 6 ounces, sliced thin
  • 1 pound 6 ounces very fresh cauliflower
  • Salt
  • 5½ cups hot water
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Freshly ground black pepper

Warm the olive oil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Sweat the onion in the olive oil over low heat without letting it brown for 15 minutes. Add the cauliflower, salt to taste, and ½ cup water, raise the heat slightly, and cover the pot tightly. Stew the cauliflower for 15 to 18 minutes, or until tender. Then add another 4½ cups of hot water, bring to a low simmer, and cook an additional 20 minutes. Working in batches, purée the soup in a blender to a very smooth, creamy consistency. Let the soup stand for 20 minutes. In this time it will thicken slightly. Thin the soup with ½ cup water. Reheat the soup. Serve hot, drizzled with a thin stream of extra-virgin olive oil and freshly group pepper.

Some final thoughts. Do not succumb to a desire to enrich the soup by adding butter or cream. The soup is perfect as is. Its flavor is clean, deep and rich; the cauliflower almost tastes roasted. I have made this soup using an immersion mixer and the results are still fine. Use extreme caution when blending hot ingredients, especially if using an upright blender. Always work in small batches only filling one-quarter or less of the jar.