February 19, 2011

Cream of Cauliflower Soup

I usually make my husband a special dinner on his birthday. In the past I’ve prepared filet mignon with brandy cream sauce, roasted Cornish game hens, and pork tenderloin with a port and fig sauce. You get the idea. There’s usually meat on the table. But this year my husband’s birthday fell on a Tuesday. This presented a bit of a challenge because we’re vegetarian on Tuesdays. Would I be able to create a vegetarian menu with the same wow factor as Boeuf Bourguignon?

I combed through my cookbooks until I came across Thomas Keller’s recipe for Cream of Cauliflower Soup. Thomas Keller is a genius. He is serious about food and expects that you are too. He explains why certain steps are important and teaches you to fully engage all of your senses when you’re cooking. This is not the cookbook you want to use if you're looking for an easy recipe or an acceptable shortcut. But if your aim is to wow your tastebuds, then this is the book to reach for.

But back to the soup. It is truly the essence of cauliflower. Creamy, intense, and utterly delicious. Don’t be intimidated by the recipe. You can simplify it a bit as I did. Keller’s recipe calls for topping the soup with homemade beet chips (I used Terra chips) and torn garlic croutons, which I just omitted. But don’t play around with the actual soup. It’s perfect just as written. I topped my soup with the purchased beet chips, a drizzle of olive oil, and some chives for color. Absolute heaven.

And no one missed the meat.

Cream of Cauliflower Soup with Red Beet Chips

Recipe from Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc at Home

Serves: 6

2 heads cauliflower (4-5 lbs total)
4 Tbsp unsalted butter
3/4 cup coarsely chopped onion
3/4 cup coarsely chopped leeks (white and light green parts only)
1/4 tsp curry powder
Kosher salt
2 cups milk
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups water
Peanut or canola oil for deep-frying
1 medium red beet
1 tsp distilled white vinegar
Torn Croutons, recipe follows
Extra virgin olive oil
Freshly ground black pepper

Remove the leaves from the cauliflower, and cut out the core. Trim off the stems and reserve them. For the garnish, trim 2 cups florets about the size of a quarter and set aside. Coarsely chop the remaining cauliflower and the stems into 1-inch pieces so that they will cook in the same amount of time. You need 8 cups of cauliflower (reserve any extra for another use).

Melt 3 Tbsp. of the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, leeks, curry, and coarsely chopped cauliflower, season with 2 tsp. salt, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are almost tender, about 20 minutes.

Pour in the milk, cream, and water, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a simmer uncovered. Simmer for 30 minutes, skimming off the foam from time to time.

Working in batches, transfer the cauliflower mixture to a blender (leave an opening in the lid for steam to escape). Begin pureeing the cauliflower on the lowest speed, slowing increasing the speed, until smooth and velvety. (Note: I used an immersion blender and it worked just fine.) Check the seasoning and add more salt if needed. Transfer to a large saucepan and keep warm. The soup can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.

Fill a small deep pot with 1 inch of peanut oil and heat over medium heat to 300 degrees F. Set a cooling rack over a baking sheet. Line the rack with paper towels. While the oil heats, peel the beet and slice off about 1/2 inch from the top. Using a Japanese mandolin or other vegetable slicer, slice the beet into rounds that are slightly thicker than paper-thin. Reserve only the full rounds.

Carefully add a few beet rounds to the oil and fry, turning them with a wire skimmer or slotted spoon as the edges begin to curl and pressing gently on the chips to keep them submerged. You will see a great deal of bubbling around the beets as the moisture in them evaporates; when the bubbling stops the beets will be crisp. Transfer the beets to a paper-towel-lined rack and season with salt. Fry the remaining chips in batches. The chips can be kept warm in a low oven.

Bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the vinegar and the reserved cauliflower florets and blanch until tender, 4 to 6 minutes. The vinegar will help keep the cauliflower white. Drain.

Melt the remaining 1 Tbsp. butter in a medium frying pan over medium-high heat, swirling the pan occasionally, until the butter turns a rich golden brown. Add the florets and sauté until a rich golden brown. Set aside.

To serve, reheat the soup. This is a thick soup, but if it seems too thick, add water to thin it to the desired consistency. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Pour the soup into a serving bowl or soup tureen. Top each serving with a few cauliflower florets, several torn croutons, and a stack of beet chips (if the beet chips sit in the soup, they will become soggy and discolor it). Drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with pepper. Serve the remaining florets, croutons, and chips in separate bowls on the side.

Torn Croutons:
1 loaf country bread
Canola oil
5 crushed, peeled garlic cloves
2 Tbsp unsalted butter

Cut the crusts off the loaf of bread. Tear the bread into irregular pieces no larger than 2 inches. You need about 3 cups of croutons; reserve any remaining bread for another use.

Pour 1/8 inch of canola oil into a large sauté pan, add garlic cloves, and heat over low heat until the garlic cloves are golden brown, flipping the cloves from time to time. Remove the garlic cloves and use the oil for the croutons.

Heat garlic oil over medium heat until hot. Spread the bread in a single layer in the pan (or cook them in two smaller pans). Add the butter. The oil and butter should be bubbling, but if you hear sizzling, the heat is too high. Adjust the heat as necessary, and stir the croutons often as they cook. Cook until the croutons are crisp and a beautiful rich golden brown on all sides, 5 minutes. Move the croutons to one side of the pan and keep warm until ready to serve. Torn croutons should be used the day they are made; you can reheat them in a low oven before serving if necessary.

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