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

Boiled kale.

Winter in New Jersey seems to drag shiveringly on, boring me to tears.  There’s the occasional snowstorm, yes, and I love every minute I spend bundled up beside the windowsill, every glass of scotch. But those snowy nights are fleeting, and then we’re back to the monotonous cold, the rude wind, the car windshield that just won’t defrost. And the cabbage.

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Cabbage is certainly reliable, staving off mold, and rot, and drying up all through these months (and months) of cold, when everyone else—the carrots, the apples—have up and left, unable to stick it through.  But, egad, is he boring. Except, of course, with the proper treatment.

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Simmered in homemade chicken stock and a knob of butter, cabbage–specifically kale—turns into something silky, tender, willing to fall apart at the touch of your teeth. Boiled kale may not seem sexy, but trust me on this, it incredibly is. When kale comes in from plowing snow all day, and takes off his work boots and Levi jeans, I promise you there are silk boxers underneath. With little red hearts on them.

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So let’s talk proper treatment. First of all, you need good stock. Homemade. I’m sorry, but I just can’t budge on that one; homemade stock is not just better than store-bought, it’s a whole different thing altogether. And it’s incredibly easy. Just take a chicken, or a few carcasses from roast chicken dinners, or a few pounds of chicken parts. Put the chicken in a pot and add water to cover the chicken (or carcasses or parts) by an inch of two—it should be around 4 quarts. Bring to a boil, add an onion and a carrot, and a tablespoon of kosher salt. Bring the heat down to low, or whatever heat allows an occasional bubbling of the stock, but nothing like a simmer or a boil. Let it go on like that for about 4 hours, tasting occasionally, until it tastes like chicken and is a beautiful shade of yellow. At this point, I usually let the stock hang out until morning, or at least a few hours, then I strain through a sieve into plastic quart containers and use or freeze. See? Easy. And about a zillion times better than store-bought stock. (The quality of the stock is even more important than the quality of the kale; I’ve made this with kale that’s a week or two past its prime and it tasted delicious. With water? Not so much.)

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Butter, too, is key and, in my opinion, there’s no alternative for it. I mean, I guess you could go for grapeseed oil if you are vegan, or maybe try a high-heat nut oil, but, please, no olive oil. The taste of olive oil changes when it’s heated at a high heat, and in this recipe, that change is totally perceptible. It’s the difference between this kale being fanatic-making good and it’s being just good. Butter, on the other hand, helps the texture, coaxing every bit of luxuriousness out of the kale. And if you like the taste of olive oil with kale, just drizzle some on top after it’s cooked. Problem solved. That’s about it; with chicken stock, and butter, and enough cooking time that the kale becomes meltingly soft and silky and deeply kale flavored, there’s nothing better to beat the cold. I could (almost) have winter all year long.

boiled kale

Boiled Kale

serves 4

    I’ve met resistance when encouraging others to eat boiled kale. I have a hunch that it has something to do with the “raw” foods craze, and the fact that “boiled” anything reminds us of flavorless food with all its nutrients leached out. But that is not the case here. This recipe involves boiling the kale in chicken stock and then letting everything simmer until the liquid evaporates, vitamins intact, leaving the kale tender and coated in a silky slip. Maybe it’s the name, so call it whatever will help: “Melted” Kale, Braised Kale, “Shut up and Eat Your Vegetable Because You Will Like Them” Kale… whatever works.About salting: I salt my kale after it’s cooked down. This may be heresy, and may mean that the kale is not salted properly to its core, but considering every bunch of kale is not the same size, and the chicken stock may be evaporating at different speeds (however negligible) on any given day, it’s safest for me to salt after so I don’t overdo it.

1 pound kale leaves, from 2 very large kale bunches
4 cups homemade chicken stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
salt

Wash kale thoroughly (using a salad spinner helps.)

To remove the kale’s leaves from stems, holding one piece at a time, run a sharp chef knife against each side of the stem, stripping the leaves off and leaving only the stem in your hand. Otherwise, lay a few pieces on top of each other and use your knife to cut the stems out. Or, strip them off with your hands, holding the stem with one hand and using your other hand to pull the leaf away from you until it comes off the stem.

Coarsely chop kale leaves. Add them to a large dutch oven or pot and pour 4 cups of homemade chicken stock over. (If there are bits of chicken stock gelatin sticking to the inside of the container, scrap that in too.) Add butter. Turn the heat to medium high and bring stock to a boil. If the kale is particularly unwieldy, or your pot isn’t quite big enough, you can put the cover on for a few minutes until it wilts some. Once it is boiling, cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid all but evaporates and the kale is silky and tender, about 45 minutes. If the kale doesn’t taste tender enough, and the liquid is already gone, add a splash more and cook until the kale meets your liking.

Salt to taste. Serve.

Monkfish and purple potatoes.

The Stockton Indoor Farmer’s Market started up only three weeks ago — right across the street from my apartment! — but thanks to Dawn McBeth, the local baker who runs the market (which also sells baked good from her bakery, Ambrosia), filling it with one amazing vendor after the next, it’s already become my favorite in the county. Bobolink Dairy and Bakeyard is there every Sunday; Purely Pastured Farm, with their lamb, beef, and chickens, recently joined up; Highland Market is there with their astonishing beef; and the Red Rooster Spice Company sets up shop every weekend. Throw in Milk House Farm’s sourced vegetables, eggs, and freshly ground grains — and Metropolitan Seafood’s selections — and I haven’t had to leave my tiny town to go grocery shopping in weeks.

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The only tricky thing is, you can’t always follow recipes when you are at the mercy of the market’s offerings. Now I know I was touting the importance of recipe-following lately, and declaring that it’s taken precedence in my cooking, so I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit that this recipe is my own creation, but it’s not my fault! I had thought I was shopping for a recipe of cod in a parmesan-sage broth; then I came upon the most gorgeous, day-boat monkfish I’d ever seen. Things needed to be rethought on the spot.

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Monkfish screams rustic, earthy, substantial. I love to use it in place of meaty proteins – beef, pork – because it stands up so well to strong flavors and textures. Even before I’d finished the buying the fish, I was thinking mushrooms, potatoes…red wine. We got some shitake mushrooms from Highland Gourmet (at a price so ridiculously low I won’t even mention it because I don’t want you to feel bad), then found some turnips, before going home to some green beans and purple potatoes (from Nonesuch Farm).

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Wanting something rustic, but not willing to totally abandon my plan for a fancy-pants dinner (this was not a one-pot of night), I came up with something rustic but refined: the purple potatoes were cut into medallions the width and height of the monkfish; the shitakes were sauteed and browned alongside the green beans and turnips; and the red wine butter sauce really satisfied my fancy urges, half of its butter being truffle-butter (which did wonderfully woodsy, earthy things to the whole affair).

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A few things should be mentioned before you cook this: first, when you saute mushrooms, you should put them in a hot-hot-hot pan with some butter — not overcrowding — then turn down the heat a little and DO NOT TOUCH THEM FOR THE FIRST FIVE MINUTES OF COOKING. Otherwise, they won’t brown properly, and if there’s anything I don’t like, it’s a mushroom that isn’t browned properly. (Which, in hindsight, makes me sound pretty weird.) After you let them go untouched for the first five minutes or so, and they are golden and browning on the first side, you can stir them as much as you want and also add other ingredients to the pan (but, again, not before those crucial five minutes are up!). The turnips should go in next, and you should be careful to make sure they brown as well, not messing with them too much either or they’ll go starchy and mush up. Then you add the green beans and cook, covering for a few minutes, until they’re tender and beginning to brown as well. More butter gets added along the way to help even more with the browning.

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One last note: trying to keep this recipe as simple as possible, we did a little test of cooking the first piece of monkfish in a pan with butter and nothing else, and cooking the second piece with rosemary sprigs and garlic cloves. Unfortunately for simplicity, the second was the clear winner, so I included that version in the recipe. The first piece was nothing to sneer at, though, so don’t worry if you’re pressed for time or out of rosemary and garlic. Otherwise, I’d follow all the steps, because they led to something great. Rustic, but refined enough for a dinner party; fancy-pants comfort food: a delicious little collaboration between my home-cook style and the things I’ve picked up from all that recipe-following lately.

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Monkfish with Purple Potatoes and Truffled Red Wine Sauce

serves 2 (or maybe 3 light eaters)

For the Truffled Red Wine Sauce
1 slice smoked bacon, chopped
1 shallot, finely diced
1/2 celery stalk, chopped
1 small carrot, chopped
1 cup chicken stock
1 cup dry red wine
4 tablespoons white truffle butter
2-4 tablespoons unsalted butter

For the Mushrooms

2 teaspoons canola oil
1 tablespoon or more white truffle butter
1/2 pound shitake mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced
a few handfuls of good-looking green beans, slim as you can find them, cut into 1 inch pieces

1-2 turnips, peeled and cut into a small dice

For the Potatoes
2-3 oblong purple potatoes, about 1 pound total
a few sprigs of thyme

For the Monkfish
¾ to 1 pound monkfish fillet, seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cloves of garlic
a sprig of thyme

In a medium saucepan, add bacon over medium high heat and render for 5 minutes. Add shallot, celery, and carrot and cook until softened but not browned, 5-10 minutes. Add chicken stock and wine and reduce by a little more than half, about 30 minutes or so.

Meanwhile make the mushrooms: add canola oil and truffle butter to a pan over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add mushrooms and leave untouched in the pan for at least 5 minutes, until the mushrooms have begun to properly brown. Turn mushrooms and add green beans and turnips and cook until turnips are browned on all sides, adding more butter or oil if the pan gets too dry.

Slice potatoes into thick medallions (you want them to be similar to the size of the monkfish medallions you’ll slice later) and put them into another pan over medium-high heat, so that they are all touching the bottom of the pan in one layer. Add chicken stock or water, enough to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes, and cover. Cook for about 10 minutes, then remove the cover and cook until all the liquid has evaporated and the potatoes are browned, turning potatoes half-way through. Turn off heat and set aside.

To finish the sauce: whisk butter into the reduced wine, a little at a time, until it is a bit thicker and tastes good—not too tart, but not too oily—then season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper.

To cook monkfish: Add canola oil to a pan over medium-high heat. Just before the oil starts to smoke, place the monkfish in the pan, rounded (presentation) side down. Cook for five minutes, until the fish is golden-brown, adding a tablespoon of butter about halfway through and basting the fish once the butter browns. (The butter should seem burnt, but the whole pan should not be smoking.) Flip the fish, add another tablespoon of butter, and cook for another six minutes, basting the entire time (and adding the garlic and thyme about halfway through, so that it flavors the butter and oil without burning). Remove the fish from pan and set on a cutting board to rest.

To finish: Cut monkfish into medallions. Spoon mushroom and turnip mixture onto a platter and place a medallion of monkfish, then a slice of potato, over the mushrooms, and repeat until you use up all the monkfish. Any leftover mushrooms or potatoes can be placed around the edge of the platter. Spoon some sauce over everything (you’ll have sauce leftover — bring it to the table to pass around) and serve.

Cod basquaise.

Over the past few years my cooking has gone from recipe-following, to recipe-adapting, to recipe-making, and now back full circle to recipe-following.  I feel like I’m honing my skills recipe-following again, and I’m certainly having a lot of fun.  Whereas last year I was constantly trying to forge my own way—starting with a basic recipe and then adapting it until it felt my own—this year I’m opening myself up for instruction, willing to believe that maybe someone out there can cook better than me (shock!), and setting aside that pride thing that has been haunting me for years.  A new year’s resolution of sorts.

Basquise

It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have to create recipes in order to be a legitimately good cook.  I think this is a problem that a lot of us food bloggers have.  We’re always searching for the next interesting post, trying to set ourselves apart from the others; we want to stake out some space in this game. (And there’s that sticky situation of always posting—some would say copying—recipes that people would otherwise have to buy the whole cookbook for. This issue gets to me now that I’m posting a lot of recipes from current cookbooks. I do believe that my enthusiasm for the cookbooks will help sales more than the recipe posting will reduce them, and that whatever I do affects sales very little… but that could just be an excuse.)  In reality, however, we probably all have a lot to learn from recipes; I know I do.  I don’t cook professionally in a restaurant.  I never had a mentor, or a childhood in Provence, not one single cooking class.  Recipes stand in for the pasta-making Italian grandmother I never had.

Pan roasted cod

So I follow recipes.  Not always diligently, but always thoughtfully.  I heed cook temps, tips, ingredients, while also taking into account my own tastes, my cookware and equipment, and ethical and sustainability issues.  If I have peperonata in the fridge, I’m not about to go out and buy fresh peppers for the cod basquaise recipe I’m following that night.  And while I didn’t make this recipe with cod the first time—the black grouper at the fish market was fresher—I made sure to try it again the next time the cod looked good and, unsurprisingly, it was better made with cod. I’d still make it with a different fish if I had the other ingredients on hand and there was no cod at the market, but I know cod is best.

Cod basquaise

The recipe is from Eric Ripert, and it’s a classic sauce basquaise (peppers, tomato) with the addition of red wine and serrano ham.  The vegetables are cooked until meltingly tender, then braised in the wine for a bit.  The cod is cooked with thyme and garlic for flavor, then served atop the sauce.  It’s robust and wintry, lush with red wine and salty ham.  Like most of Ripert’s simple recipes, it’s easy to think that you wouldn’t need to follow them really, that you could just go with the idea and wing it in your kitchen.  But if you cook the cod just so, use the correct amount of ingredients, and follow the times and simple instructions for cooking the sauce, you can rest assured that the result will be perfect.  I probably would’ve added the red wine too soon had I been going it alone, and the result wouldn’t be as silky. That’s the kind of thing I find so helpful about following recipes. So far, my new year’s resolution has rendered me some fantastic dinners.

Cod basquaise

Cod Basquaise

adapted from Avec Eric

The Basquaise

2 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup finely diced yellow onion
1 teaspoon minced garlic
¼ cup small diced Serrano ham
1 cup leftover peperonata rustica (or 1/2 cup each of chopped red and yellow bell pepper)
1 cup tinned San Marzano tomato, drained, seeded, and diced
½ cup red wine
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
fine sea salt and freshly ground pepper

The Codfish

2 tablespoons canola oil
4 (6-ounce) codfish fillets
2 springs thyme
2 cloves garlic, peeled and halved
fine sea salt and freshly ground white pepper

Heat olive oil in a heavy bottomed pan. Add onion and sweat until tender over medium-low heat. Add garlic and continue cooking until tender; add the ham and peppers. When the peppers are soft, add the tomatoes and simmer, stirring often, over low heat for 20 minutes. Add the red wine and reduce over medium heat until most of the liquid had evaporated. Stir in the chopped parsley and season to taste with salt and pepper. This can be done the day before.

Heat a pan until very hot, add the canola oil. Season the codfish on both sides with salt and pepper. Add the codfish to the pan and sauté until the fish is golden brown on the bottom along with the thyme and garlic, about 6-8 minutes, rubbing the garlic against the fish a few times, lowering the heat if necessary to prevent from burning. Turn the fish over and finish cooking the fish for another 2-3 minutes, until a metal skewer can be easily inserted into the fish and, when left in for 5 seconds, feels just warm when touched to the lip.

Spoon basquaise onto plates, place sautéed cod in the center and serve immediately.