Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Spanish-Themed Cauliflower Soup

This recipe is certainly a work in progress, though I think it has a lot of potential. It's a good example of my favorite way of cooking--one inspiration sparking another and then another. Yet again it's a Melanie connection. Melanie loved the idea of the Clementine Aioli and decided to try to translate it into soup. She said it was good, but not perfect. What an excellent idea, I thought, and decided to try my hand at it, too (without talking to Melanie about her approach).

I call my attempt Spanish-themed because, with nearly complete ignorance of Spanish food, it seemed to me kind of Spanishy to have garlic, olive oil, saffron and orange in there. If I wanted to Spanish it up even more, I'd consider adding some breadcrumbs or even ground almonds as a thickener (kind of like Romesco sauce). Of course, the real Spanish touch would have been to add smoked paprika, but I wanted to test myself by making that ingredient off limits, since I use it as a crutch so often.

Who knows if Melanie and I did the same thing or not, but our results were very similar: this soup is tasty, but astonishingly subtle. I say astonishingly because I don't think of cauliflower, garlic and saffron as subtle, certainly not in the quantities I used. The subtlety and lightness make this soup great for a first course, but not necessarily for a main course. Since we almost never have first courses in this household, this dooms it to the rarely-to-be-made category unless I solve some of the basic issues. Happily, I've got some ideas.

I'm going to give my guess at what the Version II of the recipe would look like, instead of giving you the original recipe. You really wouldn't want to bother with the original unless you were after an elegant first course soup. I will, of course, talk through my ideas.

I think that the soup needs a lot more fat. My theory here is that fat is a great deliverer of flavor. Without a good amount of fat, the garlic, orange and saffron were getting lost. To enhance the garlic flavor further, I'll use a Patricia Wells technique of cutting the garlic into slivers from the 'Penne with Zucchini and Spicy Pizza Sauce' recipe in the Trattoria cookbook (and I'm sure end up posting the sauce recipe, too, as it's now my standard pizza sauce). I also will add more orange zest. I had thought that orange juice was the way to go and I will still use some. But, as with the orange sauce from the Tofu with Orange Sauce recipe, it's very difficult to concentrate that flavor (and I don't think that orange juice concentrate would be better--I remember it having too cooked a taste).

I made my usual mistake the first time by adding way too much liquid. This meant I was scrambling to find good thickeners and battling 'thin' flavor. Silly me, I only had one can of white beans and that didn't do the job. I added a can of chickpeas, which are in keeping with the Spanish theme, but really there should have been only one type of legume in there. The soup was still not thick enough (poor Elspeth had to eat it over rice--not Spanish rice--to be able to get anything on her little spoon). The solution was potatoes (added the next day, in fact). I boiled some potatoes, added them to the soup and re-pureed the whole thing. Now the texture is luscious. I didn't start with potatoes because I wanted the protein that legumes provide since I'm trying to get a one-pot dinner out of this. Perhaps it's weird to have both legumes and potatoes in the soup, but I'd do it again to serve my nutritional goals.

Elspeth liked the soup okay over rice, but vastly preferred the potato-enhanced version. She particularly dug it once I added some small chunks of home-smoked sausage. (Thank you Evan for smoking up 12 pounds of sausage at a time so we can have a freezerful at the ready.) In her case, I used English bangers. For myself, I went a Moorish direction (kind of, sort of) by using merguez. The spicy merguez probably overwhelmed my meek little soup, but I still found the combination good to eat. If you are looking for a non-vegetarian version hearty enough for dinner, I recommend the sausage addition--you can just add it bowl by bowl since it's already fully-cooked.

Another good option would be to add small chunks of Spanish smoked chorizo, possibly lightly frizzled in a pan first to release some of the fat. There's a way to get in smoked paprika without violating my self-imposed dictum against it. It's not spicy, so the whole family could eat it. I was just looking on the Internet to see if I've reinvented an already-existing and tastier wheel with this soup and someone recommended making chorizo breadcrumbs! You saute the chorizo and then add breadcrumbs to soak up the wonderful pork-paprika fat. This idea is worth exploring...

Good news for anyone who is not a cruciferous vegetable fan: I don't think that someone who wasn't in the know would be able to identify this as cauliflower soup. To me that isn't a plus, but I am not sure there's much I could do about it without leaving the soup chunky and that doesn't appeal to me. Perhaps if I got the stock-to-ingredients ratio right, the cauliflower flavor might have more of a shot.

I think this recipe will change again after I try out Version II and make plans for Version III. How much cauliflower soup can one family handle?

INGREDIENTS
1/4 to 1/3 c. olive oil
8 cloves garlic, slivered
3 stalks celery, chopped (optional)
2 carrots, chopped (optional)
1 head cauliflower, chopped into medium-sized pieces
1-2 lb potatoes, chopped into pieces the same size as the cauliflower
1 tsp ground coriander (optional)
5 c. vegetable or chicken stock (or water, if that's all you've got)
1 large pinch saffron
1-2 cans white beans, rinsed and drained
Zest of one orange
1 c. orange juice or the juice of the orange you've zested
Salt and pepper to taste
Champagne or sherry vinegar for brightness if desired

Optional additions to each bowl: garlic croutons, chunks of smoked merguez or Spanish chorizo, chorizo breadcrumbs, chopped or slivered toasted almonds, a swirl of olive oil

DIRECTIONS
  1. In an unheated medium to large Dutch oven or pot, combine the olive oil and garlic, stirring to coat the garlic thoroughly with oil
  2. Turn the heat to medium or medium-low and very gently cook the garlic for a few minutes to release the flavor into the oil. You definitely do not want to brown the garlic
  3. Add the celery, carrot, cauliflower, potatoes, coriander and stock or water to the pot
  4. Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer
  5. Let simmer until the cauliflower and potatoes are tender (this took much longer than I thought it would--my chunks may have been too big)
  6. While the soup is simmering, let the saffron 'bloom'--place the pinch of saffron in a small bowl and cover with hot (not boiling) water. Let sit for at least 15 minutes
  7. Once the vegetables in the pot are tender, add the beans, orange juice, bloomed saffron and its water. It's important that you do not let the soup boil again after this to protect the delicate flavors
  8. Puree the soup until completely smooth, ideally using an immersion blender (transferring hot soup to a stand blender is the pits). You may need to add some more stock or water if I've got the proportions wrong; alternatively, this would be the time to add the second can of beans if I've messed it up in that direction
  9. Add the orange zest, salt and pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings, adding some vinegar if necessary
  10. Serve immediately with desired toppings or cool and serve the following day--the flavor might even be better

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