Thursday, June 27, 2013

A Look at Soups...(Cauliflower Soup)


soup  

/so͞op/

Noun
  1. A liquid dish, typically made by boiling meat, fish, or vegetables, etc., in stock or water.
  2. A substance or mixture perceived to resemble soup in appearance or consistency.
Synonyms
broth - bouillon - pottage

Don't you just love how the definition includes the word you're trying to define? Merriam-Webster online should really look into that.

When you think of soup, many things might conjure in your mind. You might think of the Campbell's tomato soup you'd have for lunch with a grilled cheese sandwich, or a bowl of Top Ramen, enjoyed in your college dorm room during the 'brokest of the broke' years of your life. I don't think of soup in the same way anymore. Working in private clubs tend to make you re-evaluate your thinking quite a bit. 

Soups are a thing that are usually overlooked. When it comes to eating out, do you go out for soup? Do you, really? Or do you, in the back of your mind, think that the soup they serve either comes in a can, or is just all the random crap that the other customers don't eat, so you throw it all in a giant stock pot and let simmer? (You probably don't but I used to think that.)  I love soups. I really do! I make many of the soups at work, and they're not only fun to make, but fun to eat. How can a soup be fun, you ask? Oh, I will tell you, audience. 

Think of a dish you like, a classic dish. How about Chicken Kiev, for an example? 

For those of you whom are unfamiliar with this delight, Chicken Kiev is a wonderful chicken dish of Ukranian/Russian origin, featuring a chicken breast that has been pounded, and rolled around a compound butter of garlic, herbs(such as tarragon and/or parsley), and then breaded and either fried or baked. Doesn't that sound just lovely? Like some kind of lighter version of Chicken Cordon Bleu. Now, take those flavors, the chicken, succulent and moist, the garlic, roasted and deep, the herbs, fresh and with a beautiful aromatic depth that can only be achieved when enjoyed warmed. Say that it's not ingredients, but instruments in an arrangement. Garlic can be the brass, since it's a strong flavor, while the herbs can be the stringed instruments. Let's give butter the woodwinds, because it's smooth, and you always know that they are there, and are sorely missing when they're not. Chicken is the percussion, the backbone, the strength, the tempo. Bread crumbs? The thing that holds it all together, and yet it somehow key? Let's say that it's the conductor, even though one might argue that it's the Chef that conducts... 

But, no, the Chef is the composer, the mastermind behind this madness of an analogy. Now, imagine all of that, hitting you, in a single, creamy, confusing, confuddling liquid that gives you all of those wonderful notes, without a single change in texture. Mind-boggling, isn't it?

Mind you, I'm talking about pureed soups, which are highly underrated, if you ask me. I think it's years and years of awful cafeteria lunches that have turned us off to mystery purees that we haven't seen made ourselves, and we Americans need to realize how amazingly beautiful a pureed soup can be! Sure, there's something beautiful about a nice chicken noodle soup, but what's elegant about that? Really?

So, a chicken soup, pureed into a wonderful, velvety texture with fresh herbs, and a garlic compound butter as a garnish? Doesn't that sound like a wonderful, elegant appetizer? Or even a main course with a nice crostini for a light lunch indoors when the wind is cold outside? Want to elevate the soup further? Do a crouton. Do a deep-fried herb, like a parsley leaf. It takes zero talent to garnish something, so why not do it? Even if it's just for yourself, alone, without pants on, you owe it to your life to have a garnished soup. Life is too short.

I have found that the simplest soups are the most amazing. When I worked at this wonderful little French bistro in Kansas, my favorite was a pureed soup of cauliflower. 

I'll never forget it. The fantastic French chef with the hipster glasses, let's call him Pierre, came in from smoking his last cigarette, washed his hands, and set the soup pot on my station. It was the Pantry station in the back, so the customers couldn't hear the whirring roar of the Vita-Prep blender, which was an absolutely indispensable tool in the kitchen. (You don't have to buy a Vita-Prep to make good pureed soups, by the way, it just helps. A standard blender works just fine in my kitchen in my tiny one-bedroom apartment in the Northland.) Sometimes, he would use chicken base in the soups, as he was blending, which is like a paste-equivalent of chicken bouillon cubes, but not this time. This time he just added salt and a few knobs of butter into the blender here and there. Then he left halfway through and asked me to finish blending, and put it downstairs. I shrugged and said okay, asking what it was as he left. 

It kind of does look like brains, doesn't it?
"Chou-fleur," he said.

Cauliflower? That...weird, brain-lobe-y looking thing? The white thing that you steam with broccoli, and leave it on the table at Thanksgiving? 

Yes! Yes, that! I took one of my tasting spoons, which I kept in a bain-marie on my station for just such an occasion, and sipped. It was like I had discovered a new continent, that had figuratively been sitting in front of my face my whole life. No wonder I hated cauliflower as a child! Steaming it to oblivion at Thanksgiving ruined the depth, the lightness, the wonderfully subtle 'umami' that it had. Although I could never truly replicate Chef Pierre's masterpiece, here's my own little concerto, that's similar, and good, although I'm sure that the French Chef would hate me for this method...but it's really his fault, for not showing me how to do it the right way:

A French Cauliflower Soup

  • 2 lbs. cauliflower florets
  • 1 medium white onion, diced
  • 5 cloves garlic, de-nibbed[that means cut off the tiny brown 'root/nibs'(trust me on this one)] and crushed with the side of your knife
  • A generous knob of butter
  • One fat pinch ground white pepper
  • 3 healthy sprigs of fresh Thyme
  • 2 cups chicken stock, plus water to cover, if needed
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Kosher salt to taste

  • In a large, thick-bottomed soup pot, melt the butter and brown the cauliflower florets, lightly roasting them. You can also roast them in a 400 degree oven, if you like, but I find I like this better, since you catch all the goodies on the bottom of the pan. Add the onions and garlic, and sweat everything together until quite soft, on a medium heat. Introduce your thyme sprigs now, and season. Add in the chicken stock and water(if needed to cover it), and bring it up to a boil. Simply bring it up, and don't worry so much about boiling for too long. Simmering lightly will only be needed until the cauliflower is soft, and then remove from heat. 

    Break out your favorite ladle, and your blender. Remove the plastic cap thingy from the middle of your blender top. I cannot stress that enough. Trust me. You only want the steaming, boiling-hot, screaming liquid to splash all over your body and face once. Not even once. So just do yourself a favor and remove that plastic cap thingy and get yourself that dishtowel you don't mind running through the wash on your next load of laundry. Or that janky-yet-clean potholder you have in the catch-all drawer in your kitchen; you all know the one. 

    Soup kettle and brightly-printed napkins are optional.
    Blending in batches is simple. Make sure you have equal parts solids and liquid, and just start off at a low speed, working up to the highest you can get. Blend until smooth and velvety. Take your time with this step, as it's totally worth it. A naughty little Chef's trick? With each blended batch, drop in a small knob of butter as you blend...it will be that extra little step that will make your guests(or just you, who cares) go "ooh, what's this?"

    As for the heavy cream? Whisk it in until you get the desired consistency. It's honestly entirely optional, but I like to put in about a cup of the stuff at the end. If you're saving this in the freezer(like I sometimes do) for later, don't add the cream until you heat it up. The cream should be a finisher, the icing on the cake, the last drumming beat to a well-timed song. The symbol crash, if you will! But make sure it's cream, for goodness' sake, not milk. Cream. 

    I made this soup as a Thanksgiving offering the first year I was out of Culinary School, and my great-grandmother T-Lo loved it so much, she had me portion it out in coffee mugs for her so she could take them home and freeze them as she wanted to heat it up. Huge kudos to me!

    As far as a garnish? Deep-fried parsley leaves have always been my favorite. Or just a crouton with a sprinkling of asiago(I know, I know! It should be gruyere!) cheese. Or nutmeg, if you're feeling fancy.