I wish I could tell you that it was my intent all along to give you a recipe free from any distraction, but the truth is that sometimes I am so focused on the outcome of something that fine details get past me.
Because, you see, I have a confession to make. I considered waiting to make it until I’d gotten you in the door, so to speak, and all the way through the story and recipe and out the other side before I slipped in the, oh silly me, truth. But in the end, I couldn’t do that.
Earlier this year I took a writing class from a writer I’ve been following through facets of his career for years, Tim Cahill. Throughout the semester, we returned often to the principle that the first tenet of any – any and all – writing is to tell the truth. Even if it’s fiction and you’re making it up wholesale, there must be a coherent truth throughout the narrative.
So I must tell you the truth from the outset: I was nine tenths through my afternoon of preparing and photographing the soup and the bread when I stepped to the computer to clarify a cooking time. And saw my camera’s memory card sticking out of its slot to the left of the keyboard. Where it had been ever since I photographed my bedroom curtains sighing in a gentle, early morning breeze. Then transferred the card from the camera to the computer to upload those photos. Because I thought it might create an interesting entrée into the story of an almost autumnal dinner in the middle of summer. What I said is not suitable for children and other living things. Worse, this wasn’t the first time I’d been, uh, surprised.
I had two choices. One, I could start all over again tomorrow, which I really didn’t want to do; I very much wanted to post this sooner rather than later. Or two, I could proceed and remain true to one of the other principles of the class: no photographs. While the theme was travel writing, it wasn’t the Condé Nast Traveller sort of travel writing. Rather, the sort where the writing that we read, and that we attempted ourselves, was so rich and evocative that photographs would be superfluous, and in fact, likely a distraction.
So here is a recipe free of any distraction. I wish it had been the design from the outset, but regardless, here we all are.
What an odd day, meteorologically speaking. I woke sometime in the dark of last night to my curtains whipping in some serious wind. Possible thundershowers had been mentioned, but nothing materialized by morning, save for last evening’s heat now gentled by soft clouds and a lingering breeze – a welcome respite from brilliant days in the 90s.
Today was forecast to reach the 80s and be mostly sunny, typical for mid-July here, if a shade on the cool side. While I am sure “mostly sunny” applied to someone, it wasn’t us, nor did the temperature even reach 70.
When typically the finches, red-breasted nuthatches, and chickadees would rest in the thickly shaded upper reaches of the tall ash trees during the hottest part of the day, they have spent an entire, extremely vocal one at the backyard feeders. As a result, the parakeets in the kitchen have had someone besides themselves to converse with all day long. Talking to my daughter via telephone at one point, she interrupted to ask if that was my birds making “all that noise?!” Yes, in a manner of speaking.
It all added up to a cook’s version of winning the trifecta: I’ve had the day off, it’s not only cool enough to even think about baking something, but also to make a soup that can actually be served warm. And a light rain just began to fall – before I hung a load of clothes outside to dry.
If you have an immersion blender, you can cook and purée the soup in one pot. The bread gets mixed in one bowl, with one spoon. While the former is bubbling along and you’re mixing and baking the latter, I’ve a splendid radio program for you to listen to. Because whether you’re looking at the product of a day off or an evening’s effort, slowed time is to be savored.
CARROT & CAULIFLOWER SOUP
The remainder of a head of cauliflower leftover from the other evening’s steaks was winking at me, reminding me that its clock was ticking. Cauliflower alone wasn’t exactly setting my thoughts on fire. Ah, but sitting right next to it were several lovely carrots. Toss in some garlic, I thought, and we’ll make it a variation on Chilled Asparagus Soup, hold the chill. And the color should be beautiful.
Makes 2 generous servings
1/2 head of cauliflower, including stems*
3 large or 4 small carrots
3 cloves garlic, smashed & peeled
Juice of 1/2 lemon
Sea or kosher salt and pepper to taste
Olive oil or chili oil for garnish
* If you have some leftover steamed cauliflower, lucky you; you’ve already dealt with the mess that cutting it up creates. Wait until the carrots are about half-way cooked before adding it to the soup.
**Once your soup is simmering, pull up Lynne Rosetto Kasper’s lovely conversation with Chef Andrea Reusing. I deliberately allow podcasts of The Splendid Table to accumulate in piles so that I can listen to several in a row. One alone just doesn’t satisfy my appetite for the lovely conversations Lynne engages in with chefs, cooks, writers, and people in general from all walks of the food world. While Andrea was preparing her Turnip Soup, I was fascinated by Lynne’s statement that she had once worked with a chef who preferred water as a medium for cooking vegetables “because it gives such clarity to the food.” That simple thought hit me like a revelation: bright vegetables free of the heavier flavors of a stock. To have been given permission to come at soup, in particular, from a different direction has been a whole new joy.
- Chop up the head of cauliflower. It won’t be pretty. It doesn’t matter. First, break the florets apart with your hands. Quarter the larger ones and halve the smaller ones (stems included because everything is going to be puréed anyway) and all will end up in segments of relatively the same size. That way, they’ll cook at the same pace.
- Peel the carrots and remove the ends. Chop them into about 1/2″ pieces. They’re a bit more dense than cauliflower, so cut them smaller.
- Put the cauliflower and carrots into a saucepan or soup pot along with the garlic. Add cold water to cover by 1 inch. The vegetables will begin to float, so get a visual fix on their top level before adding the water. Cover the pot (because a covered pot heats up faster than an uncovered one), and set it over medium-high heat . Bring it to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and remove the lid. You want some of the water to cook away as the vegetables simmer because flavors will be more concentrated.
- Simmer for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the denser pieces can be easily pieced with a sharp knife. Try to avoid thinking that because you’re going to purée them, the vegetables need to be excessively soft. You’re making soup, not baby food.
- If you’re lucky enough to own an immersion blender, you can purée and season everything right in the pot in which it was cooked. If not, use a food processor or blender. Purée all of the vegetables and their cooking liquid until as smooth as possible. Blend in the juice of one half of a lemon before you begin seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. The lemon is going to brighten the flavors of the gently simmered vegetables such that you’ll likely add less salt than otherwise.
HERBED BUTTERMILK BREAD
While the soup is simmering, and as you’re listening to the above-mentioned podcast, make your bread. By the time it’s done, your soup will be done and puréed, just waiting for some chunks of warm bread to be dipped into it.
I had in mind a light, summertime bread with lots of fresh herbs, and thought of a riff on my Nouveau Irish Soda Bread because, while I have an odd not-quite-middle-of-the-week day off, I’m feeling a bit stingy with my time. I’m just not in a mood to give over too much of it to a yeasted bread. This one is best served warm. And since it takes as long to make 2 loaves as it does 1, double the ingredients and freeze a loaf for a time when you really can’t stand the thought of heating the oven.
Best of all, you’ll have just one bowl and spoon to wash up at the end.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon fine-grained sea or kosher salt
8 ounces buttermilk***
2 ounces olive oil
1 tablespoon honey
Minced fresh herbs: dill, thyme, rosemary, chives – whatever you have, about a generous tablespoon of your combination
Additional flour for dusting work surface, about 1/4 cup
***If you don’t have or don’t keep buttermilk on hand (and really, you know you should), you can easily sour some milk to use in its place. Measure 8 ounces of milk (preferably whole, but please, not less than 2%). Stir into it 1 teaspoon of white, cider, or even red wine vinegar. Microwave for 10 seconds, then let sit for 5 minutes. It’s supposed to look curdled because it is.
- Preheat oven to 375º.
- Set a sieve over a large mixing bowl. Measure the AP flour, cake flour (it’s all right to use entirely all-purpose flour, but cake flour adds a nice tenderness), baking soda, and salt into it, then sift everything down into the bowl. Press any remaining lumps through with your fingers.
- Add the buttermilk, olive oil, and honey. Stir until it’s stiff enough that you can’t any longer.
- Dust your board with about half the additional flour. Turn the dough out onto it. Scatter the fresh herbs over the top. Use a bench scraper to flip portions from the bottom over the top three or 4 times. Gently knead to distribute the herbs throughout the dough. Don’t think you need to knead in all the flour on the board; stop kneading when the dough feels homogenous, after about 30 seconds.
- Shape into a ball. Turn the ball over and roll its top around in the flour to give your bread a lovely rustic look. Set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Just before you set it in the oven, use a serrated knife to cut a 3″ X in the top of the dough. It will expand in the oven and give your finished bread a gorgeous appearance.
- Bake until well browned, about 40 to 45 minutes. When done, the center of the X should feel bouncy and a bit firm, not soft.
- Remove from the oven and allow to cool a bit before cutting, about 15 minutes.
Ladle some soup into a favorite bowl. Add some drops of a good, fruity olive oil, or chili oil of you prefer some heat (I do), and serve with a couple of thick slices of warm, fragrant bread.