Saffron Cauliflower Soup

Life doesn’t seem to understand that my head is still on vacation. I keep telling Life, over and over, that I’m still in Savannah or soaking in the tub at the Riverstead, and Life just puts his fingers in his ears and ignores me. He tells me I’ve been home for almost a month, and that I need to get back to cooking, and blogging about my meals, and to quit thinking I’m some kind of restaurant blogger now.


Writing about restaurants here and over at my new second-blog-home, Jersey Bites, helps me pretend I’m still on vacation. I went out to brunch last week and had two cocktails. I went out to lunch the next day. Then Jim and I ordered wood-oven pizzas two nights in a row. Then back out to dinner the next day. Hey Life, that sounds like a vacation to me. It’s all amazing fun.

But honestly, Life is right. I need to get back to cooking more regularly. I made a soup this morning and it felt so good to be standing over the stove, chopping onions, sneaking tastes here and there before the soup was finished. It even felt strangely good to be cleaning up the dishes later, swiping my favorite cutting board clean, drying off the blender. And finally, after almost a month back from vacation, I felt like I was me again: home in my kitchen, slurping up this creamy, salty soup, flavored boldly but not overwhelming with saffron, and topped with chive oil and fat snips of chives.

Soup is me. I need to remember that when I’m feeling out of sorts. I love making soups in the middle of a Saturday morning. No one else in the kitchen. No rush to get dinner on the table. I putt around. Listen to an episode of The Splendid Table. Cut the onions with precision, even though I don’t need to. And then, after the dishes are done and the table is cleared, I can sit down next to the tulips and have a proper lunch.

My favorite soup for this kind of proper lunch, on a Saturday with flowers on the table, is a pureed vegetable soup. This one, cauliflower, is just right: velvety with a bit of cream; very smooth after a long twist in the blender. It’s fancier than your typical clean-out-the-fridge pot of soup, so you can have a bowl for lunch and then serve the rest at a dinner party. The chives this time of the year are a little less than bright and cheery, so I pureed them with some nice olive oil for drizzling.

But the saffron is what really makes it special. Saffron is the long satin glove of the spice wardrobe. Delicate, fancy, and exotic, it lends a very-slightly bitter taste, almost of iodine, to the creamy soup—a flavor that can’t be mimicked. And the way you cook with it, lifting the little threads of out of their tiny bag, your soft, nimble fingers crushing it, measuring it out just right (because too much saffron is more like big, burly snow gloves), before you finally let it steep in the broth—it’s all very satisfying. With this soup, in my own home, I’m not missing vacation at all.

Saffron Cauliflower Soup

serves 6

adapted from Bon Appetit, January 2003

2 cups water
2 cups chicken stock
1/8 teaspoon coarsely crumbled saffron threads

3 tablespoons butter
2 cups chopped onions
1 1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into1/2- to 3/4-inch pieces
1/4 cup heavy cream, or more to taste

1 small bunch chives
1/3 cup olive oil
Thinly sliced fresh chives

Combine 2 cups water and 2 cups low-salt chicken broth in medium saucepan. Bring mixture just to simmer. Remove from heat. Add saffron threads. Cover and steep 20 minutes.

Melt 3 tablespoons butter in heavy medium pot over medium-low heat. Add chopped onions and sauté until very tender but not brown, about 10 minutes. Add cauliflower pieces; stir to coat. Add saffron broth. Bring to simmer over high heat. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer until cauliflower pieces are tender, about 20 minutes.

Working in batches, puree cauliflower mixture in a blender until smooth. Transfer cauliflower puree to large saucepan. Stir in half and half and bring to simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Bring to simmer before serving.)

Put chives into cleaned blender.  Pulse for 1 minutes.  Add oil in a steady steam and blend for 1-2 minutes more, or until chive oil is smooth.

Ladle soup into bowls. Garnish with chive oil and a few sliced fresh chives and serve.

Printable Recipe

Linguine with sea urchin sauce and caviar.

Two thousand and ten. I may just be getting old, but that doesn’t seem right.  It seems like, in 2010, we should be zooming around in flying cars.  Or teleporting.  Talking to aliens, at least. When I was a kid, to be honest, I thought we’d all be dead by 2010, though I was always a little pessimistic.  But still, here we are: 2010.  Wow.

A mess

We don’t have flying cars yet (and I never really understood why we wanted them–we have airplanes, no?) and, as far as I know, we haven’t reached any aliens; but I have something that’ll knock those things out of the water: linguine with sea urchin sauce and caviar.  Happy New Year.

Treasure

If you’ve never tried sea urchin, you really must.  (Though go out to a nice restaurant to do it; the smell of uncleaned sea urchin could deter anyone from a first bite.)  To me, the flavor tastes more like the ocean than mussels, with their blue brininess, or even oysters, which run a close second.  Sea urchin smells and tastes ancestral, primitive.  It’s extremely sexy.  Well, once you get past the part where you’ll need to put on thick rubber gloves so as not to stab yourself.

Sea urchin

My first taste of sea urchin was at Nobu Next Door, the first time I took Jim out to dinner.  He had been taking me out a lot, to Cafe Boulud, and Babbo, and Gotham Bar and Grill, spending the money from his book advance, and I wanted to reciprocate.  We drove into the city, showed up at Nobu without reservations, and were directed to their sister restaurant, Next Door.  I told the waitress to bring us whatever she liked.  I struggled with my chopsticks and one ended up on the neighboring table (thankfully, the couple was wonderful, and gently urged me to eat with my fingers.)  I nearly had a heart attack when the check came; I’d been working part-time at Barnes & Noble and finishing my senior year of college, and I think the dinner was close to a whole month’s paycheck.  I walked out with a bit of sticker shock, but as it wore off, I realized that I would have paid that and more, if only for the introduction to sea urchin. I was so in love with the stuff and I’m sure I made a fool of myself at the dinner, goofy-faced and swooning, exclaiming that it tasted like the ocean in a cloud.

Twirl

The next time I tried sea urchin, at a place-that-shall-remain-nameless in the Hamptons, it was decidedly less impressive; the piece was too large, the urchin’s flavor more like the dregs of the sea than the waves.  I hadn’t had it since, until this New Year’s Eve.  I’m happy to report that it was just as good—better!—than the first time.  Parmigiano reggiano and butter compliment the sea urchin’s brininess, a flawless combination that pleasantly surprised me; the fishiness of the caviar brings out the urchin’s sweetness.  The sauce coated each strand of pasta in just the right, silky way (you need good, dried pasta for this; fresh would make the overall texture too soft).  It was easy enough to pull off after a few glasses of champagne, too.

American paddlefish caviar

This year had been one of ups and downs.  The ups have been really high.  The downs, way down.  But as I look back at 2009, I’m amazed at where I am with my cooking, my relationship with Jim, my happiness with myself and the place we live, how much I love this blog.  I feel like things are just getting started.  2010 will be a good year, even without teleportation.

Linguini with sea urchin and caviar

Linguine with Sea Urchin Sauce and Caviar

serves 4, adapted from Eric Ripert’s On the Line

I’m still failing at my mission to find Espelette pepper, so I replaced it with fresh black pepper in this recipe.  I also used American paddlefish caviar instead of Iranian osetra caviar because it’s sustainable and costs a lot less than the upwards of $500 you can spend for the Iranian.  I’ve had both in my lifetime and, especially in a recipe like this, you won’t feel cheated with paddlefish.

The Sea Urchin Sauce

½ cup sea urchin roe (the pink stuff inside)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted, good quality butter, softened
1 tablespoon water
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper

The Pasta

1 ½ teaspoons thinly sliced chives
1 tablespoon freshly grated parmigiano reggiano cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground white pepper
½ lemon, or to taste

The Garnish

1 ounce American paddlefish caviar, or to taste

For the sea urchin sauce, puree the sea urchin roe in a blender, scraping down the side with a rubber spatula so that no big pieces remain unblended.  Pass it  through a fine-mesh sieve, and return to the blender.  Blend the puree with the softened butter.

To finish the sauce, bring the water to a boil in a small saucepan.  Gradually whisk in the sea urchin butter, about 1 tablespoon at a time.  Season with salt and pepper and keep warm.

When reader to serve, cook the pasta in a large pot of boiling salted water until al dente; drain.

Put the chives in a medium stainless steel bowl, add the warmed sauce and Parmesan cheese, and mix well.  Season with salt and white pepper if necessary.  Gently toss the pasta with the sauce.

To serve, use a meat fork to twirl one-quarter of the pasta and mound it in the center of a small bowl.  Repeat 3 times.  Drizzle 1 tablespoon of the sauce remaining in the stainless steel bowl around each mound.  Squeeze the lemon juice over the pasta and place 1 ½ teaspoons of the caviar on top of each mound of pasta.  Serve immediately.

Peperonata rustica.

Well, I finally channeled Christmas last week, and it was exhausting. I made countless batches of cookies—earl grey tea cookies, chocolate chips, Heidi’s ginger chip, linzer cookies, peanut butter ones, and almond spritzes—and a Catalan beef stew for 10.  We spent Christmas at Jim’s family’s, then the next day at mine (where we didn’t cook; thanks for the lamb, Dad!), Monday at the doctor’s office (not Christmasy, I know), and didn’t stop to rest before the week began again today.

peppers
We’ve got another holiday looming—New Year’s Eve—and Jim and I will spend it alone; which is not to say it won’t be exhausting in itself, as we’ll be cooking pork belly confit for the first course and pasta with sea urchin and caviar for the main.  I’m already exhausted just thinking about all those delicious calories, but it’s been a tradition of Jim’s and mine to send the waning year out with a delicious bang.  A few years ago we had $30 dollar baked potatoes (with black truffle) and beef tenderloin with artichokes; last year we had foie gras for an appetizer, and a roast chicken with truffles slipped under the skin for our main course.  We always add a few shots of icy, viscous vodka while the time ticks towards 12, and a few chocolate desserts for once the ball drops.

Peppers for roasting

And then, once we wake in the morning, dazed and a little hungover, we start the next year.  We exercise and eat healthily, diligently read the New York Review of Book and the brush up on our studies.  We’re pretty serious about new year resolutions, and this year is no exception.  We have a wedding coming up, you know.  And I’ll be damned if I don’t look just-so in my wedding dress.

Peppers, steaming
Come 2010, I’ll be making this peperonata rustica, from the Ad Hoc at Home Cookbook, often.  It’s healthy without going overboard (I’m not one for restricting my diet to skinless chicken breasts and wheatgrass during a diet, anyway) and packed with enough flavor to make a little go a long way.

But enough of that resolution stuff, let’s talk the Ad Hoc at Home Cookbook. It’s amazing!  This peperonata rustica is amazing! The soffrito that goes in it, that takes 5 glorious hours to make, is amazing! It  also gave me the Catalan beef stew, which I deemed amazing enough to suit us for Christmas dinner. Egads! This cookbook is… well, you catch my drift, amazing. And if you don’t have it already, you need to.  Besides being flippin’ gorgeous, this book will make you a better cook.  No question about it.

Peperonata rustica

Even if this peperonata rustica isn’t the first recipe you try from the cookbook (there’s a ton of good stuff in here: I’ve tried the Catalan beef stew, fried chicken, stewed prunes, and meatballs with pappardelle so far, and have not been disappointed yet), put it on your short list.

You take sweet-tart, fresh roasted red and yellow bell peppers, and smoky, sweet piquillos and stew them with some soffrito and chicken stock, and Espelette pepper if you can find it (I couldn’t, so I used a touch of pimenton de la vera, dulce and a smaller amount of cayenne—not a perfect substitute, but it worked fine.)  I’m obviously a little smitten with the soffrito; it’s made with a whole lot of good olive oil and onions, slowly caramelized over a low heat, with tomatoes added after a few hours, and a bit of garlic at the end.  The result is beyond words. The perfect flavoring agent for this peperonata, or for stew. I’m not going to give you the real recipe because I really, really do think you should buy this book (I can be downright bossy sometimes) but if you refuse, I’m sure the above directions will get you by.

I would buy you all a copy of the book if I could (and I’m a little displeased with Santa, since I specifically asked him to do just that) to ring in the new year.  But since I can’t do that, here’s one recipe.  It’s delicious as a side for fish, or as a base for fried eggs, or eaten alone over some fluffy white rice.  It’s also achingly pretty, with bits of green chive and bright reds and yellows. It’s something I can make resolutions for.

Peperonata Rustica

Peperonata Rustica

from the Ad Hoc at Home Cookbook [excluding side notes]

serves 6

6 yellow bell peppers
6 red bell peppers
Canola oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
8 ounces piquillo pepper, drained, peeled, and seeded
About ½ cup soffrito (see recipe in cookbook, or make up your own soffrito of oil, onions, tomatoes, and a touch of garlic)
1½ cups of chicken stock
¾ teaspoon piment d’Espelette
1 tablespoon minced chives

Preheat the oven to 375F.  Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.   Cut the bell peppers lengthwise in half and remove the stems and seeds.  Toss the peppers with oil to coat and salt and pepper to taste.  Arrange the peppers cut side down on the baking sheets, the red peppers on one, the yellow peppers on the other.

Roast the peppers until the skin is blistering, 30 to 35 minutes for the red and 35 to 40 minutes for the yellow, do not allow the edges to blacken.  Transfer the peppers to a bowl and cover with plastic wrap, or put in an airtight container with a lid.

When the peppers are cool enough to handle, peel them.  Tear them lengthwise into strips about ¾ inch wide.  Tear the piquillos into strips in the same way.

Combine all the peppers, the soffrito, stock, and Espelette [or whatever you are substituting] in a medium saucepan over medium heat, season with salt and pepper, and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 30 minutes, to soften the peppers completely and meld the flavors.

Transfer to a bowl or platter, sprinkle with chives, and serve.