Cauliflower Soup & Cooking by Hand
Following this recipe for cauliflower soup was, for me, a leap of faith. It's a slow recipe, whereas I love to hurry a recipe and often highlight how little time it took to prepare. I also love to wing it when I'm cooking, so I rarely follow a recipe. In this case, I not only followed the recipe, I even weighed out my ingredients.
So what inspired this rare discipline and patience?
The fabulous food writing in Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand. Paul knows food (he was a chef at Chez Panisse and is now chef and co-owner of Oliveto) and his food writing is unique. His voice quietly and authoritatively presents food to you "in the moment", in all its sensory glory. Food and cooking become metaphors for life and living. Reading this book is, for me, a meditation. It's enlightening.
Unlike most cauliflower soup recipes, this one is neither spiced nor creamy. Bertolli says "add cream or seasonings such as curry (a common cure) to cauliflower, or add solid garnishes, and you steal from it." His soup recipe "is a good example of the austere requirements of certain foods: that the clearest expression of their flavor suggests adding next to nothing."
The first part of the recipe is to sweat an onion (6 oz) in a little olive oil for 15 minutes, without letting it brown. I knew I'd have to set a timer or I'd never make it. Even on the lowest heat and in my heavy bottomed soup pot, the onion started to brown. I had to move it all to one side and pull the saucepan half off the heat. You then add 1 lb 6 oz of very fresh cauliflower and salt to taste (that's always tough, I always underestimate), plus 1/2 cup water, and stew the cauliflower, tightly covered for 15-20 minutes, until tender ( 20 mins for me). Then add 4-1/2 cups hot water, and simmer for 20 minutes. Puree and let sit for 20 minutes. Add 1/2 cup water, reheat, and serve with a thin stream of extra-virgin olive oil and freshly ground black pepper.
So after I pureed it with my immersion handblender, I tasted it, pretty sure I had undersalted. I had undersalted, but I was stunned by the soup's plainness. I corrected the seasoning and tasted again with fresh ground pepper - much better, but, still awfully plain.
I decided to go ahead and take pictures.
When I returned, the 20 minute wait time was up and I added the additional water. I tasted again. Eureka! The flavors had developed and were singing to me from my spoon. Mellow, with a hint of roasted onion, and pure cauliflower taste, this soup was absolutely delicious!
Cooking by Hand by Paul Bertolli is much more than a cookbook. It's a collection of essays, personal recollections, precise techniques, and recipes. Bertolli discusses respect for ingredients and the origin of recipes, ripeness, tomatoes, pasta, wine, and cooking backwards to name a few. Brilliant and completely real, this book is remarkable and a pleasure to read.
Postscript note: a recent update - Paul Bertolli is now focusing on starting a new company to make artisanal salumi--under the label Fra'Mani, and chef Paul Canales has taken over the helm of the Oliveto kitchen.