In defense of the ordinary:creamy cauliflower soup with parsley pesto

I’ve been sitting on this recipe for a while, because procrastination and inconsistency are two of my specialties. But wait, there’s more to it than that. The problem is: What can I possibly say about cauliflower? To be sure, it is not the sexiest of vegetables.

Last night I understood the difficulty while watching a snippet of Charlie Rose’s interview with Gabrielle Hamilton, chef/owner of Prune restaurant in NYC and author of a newly published, reputedly fascinating, memoir entitled Blood, Bones and Butter.

Cauliflower, like my life right now, just doesn’t measure up to that kind of excitement. In fact, both my life and cauliflower: nothing to write home about. Which means, I haven’t much news to impart to you, dear readers. I do not currently own a restaurant like Gabrielle Hamilton, nor have I wandered the length and breadth of a bunch of continents and returned with spellbinding stories of my semi-self-destructive (read glamorous) life.

I had to stop and think about that. (Warning: detour ahead). My father used to say ‘comparison is odious.’ I hated when he said that. First of all, I didn't understand the meaning of odious—he was no doubt trying to improve my vocabulary—but it sounded like ominous, so I had to look up both of those words in the dictionary. In addition, it smacked of unhelpful criticism. No accompanying constructive encouragement, explanations or tips.

But it turns out, Dad was right. Over the years I have observed that whenever I compare myself to someone (usually unfavorably) after some time passes, I understand with the genius of hindsight that my life is actually perfect and I do not want to trade it with anyone else’s no matter how unexciting mine may seem to me.

Because there comes a time when you recognize that unexciting is good. Unexciting (not to be confused with boring) is healthy. Unexciting is in the eye of the beholder, too. (College Boy  thrills at the prospect of cauliflower on the menu.) Every moment cannot be a tah-dah! moment, thankfully, or in the pages of the newspaper. 

As my friend Bruce Rubin says, "Seeing the remarkable in the unremarkable requires a conscious effort, a daily practice, until it just arises on its own." 

Unexciting doesn’t engender exceptional storytelling on a daily basis, but it has its own little dramas. When you become free of the larger, crazy dramas (I’m not saying that I am, but I’m working on it), sitting down with a piece of buttered toast and a cup of tea is enough. It can be a blissful, wonderful moment, without fanfare. I like that.

As for the cauliflower, it is homely and plain, but it, too, is healthy and extraordinary in its own unique cauliflower way. The vegetable is packed with nutrients such as vitamin C, folic acid, potassium and fiber and it is easy to love when transformed into a creamy soup made without an ounce of cream. A single potato cooked with the cauliflower and a couple of seconds in a blender deliver a satisfyingly smooth texture.

If you need some drama you can live with, top the soup with a spoonful of pesto. When traditional basil is not in season, a parsley version is a winning contender, especially when you employ this neat pesto trick: Blanch the parsley in boiling water for a few seconds, plunge it into an ice-water bath and squeeze out the excess water before making the pesto in the usual way. Blanching produces a bright green color that lasts for days. Toss leftover pesto with pasta or spread on bread in a sandwich.

Cauliflower soup with bright green parsley pesto

Serves 4

SOUP:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 celery stalks, thickly sliced

1 head cauliflower, cored and broken into 2-inch florets

1 small potato, peeled and cut in 1-inch chunks

6 cups chicken or vegetable stock

Salt and pepper, to taste

1. Melt the butter in a soup pot over medium heat, Add the onions and celery. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes, or until the vegetables soften but do not brown.

2. Add the cauliflower, potatoes, stock, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 15 minutes, or until the vegetables are tender.

3. Puree the soup in a blender in batches and return it to the pot. Reheat, stirring, over low heat. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like.

4. Ladle the soup into bowls and drizzle each bowl with a generous spoonful of parsley pesto.

PESTO: (makes about 1 cup)

1/4 cup walnuts

2 cups packed parsley leaves

3 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan

1. Toast the walnuts in a small, dry skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly for 3 minutes, or until they are aromatic. Immediately transfer them to small plate (they will continue to cook and possibly burn if left in the hot pan).

2. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Set a bowl of ice water next to the stove. Drop the parsley leaves into the boiling water and once the water returns to a boil, cook for 30 seconds. Remove the parsley with a slotted spoon and plunge it into the bowl of ice water. Swish it around for 30 seconds and drain into a colander. Squeeze out as much liquid as possible with your hands.

3. Combine the parsley, walnuts, olive oil, salt, black pepper, grated Parmesan and 6 tablespoons hot tap water in a blender. Puree until smooth. Taste and add more salt and pepper if you like. Store leftover pesto in the refrigerator for up to 5 days and toss with pasta or spread on bread in a sandwich.

Tutorial: How to prep a head of cauliflower

Remove the bottom part of the stem and the leaves

Cut a deep cross into the bottom of the head of cauliflower  

Break the head into four pieces

Slice off the inner core and the bottom leaves

Break apart the florets with your hands

If you want small florets, cut the larger pieces apart along the stems of the bottom  "branches," allowing the tops to separate at natural points

Find more recipes for cauliflower soup at:

Simply Recipes

Steamy Kitchen

Becks and Posh

Provence Calling

Undercover Caterer

Quick Irish oatmeal bread with cheddar and pumpkin seeds recipe

It’s cold this week in New England and like everyone else, I am waiting (impatiently) for spring to make up its mind.

Meanwhile, April fool! Snowstorm in our immediate future! But I’m staying tuned. Those fickle weather gods are at it again. I'm taking a wait-and-see attitude.

While I'm cooling my heels, I am counting my blessings. This slow segue into spring allows me to do the following:

1) Procrastinate garden cleanup (justified for another week or so.)

2) Procrastinate cleaning study (it is too cold in there.)

3) Close door to study until the weather warms up, so I can….

4) Ignore tornado-like mess I created in attempt to organize study.

5) Procrastinate grocery shopping (justified by a freezer full of soup.)

J

ust to keep me on my toes, I’m going to make this easy bread to eat with my soup. It’s a version of Irish soda bread. I was going to make it for St. Patrick’s Day, but just like the arrival of spring, I procrastinated.

(See 

Harvest Soup

,

Roasted Tomato Soup

,

Tri-Colored Lentil Soup

,

Vegetable Barley Soup

)

A general method for making soda breads and scones:

Stir flour, baking powder and salt together and rub in butter pieces until mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs

Add and mix in additional dry ingredients, such as raisins, currants, seeds, or grated cheese.

Pour in the liquid, in this case, buttermilk.

Stir together to form a dough.

Plop the dough onto a greased or parchment-lined baking sheet.

Use your floured hands to shape it into a flat round.

Make a deep cross in the bread and prick it four times in the triangles created by the cross to ‘let the fairies out,' as my Irish grandmother might say. If you are making scones, cut the round in eight triangular wedges and separate them on the baking sheet.

Brush with cream or buttermilk. 

Sprinkle with toppings.

Irish oatmeal bread with cheddar and pumpkin seeds

Makes 1 round loaf

3 ounces grated sharp cheddar, about 1 1/4 cups

3 tablespoons pumpkin seeds

1 cup whole-wheat flour

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup steel-cut oats

3/4 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut in small pieces

2 tablespoons flax seeds

1 1/4 cups buttermilk plus 1 tablespoon for the top of the bread

Extra buttermilk to glaze the bread

1. Heat the oven to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment. Set aside 2 tablespoons of the grated cheese and 1 rounded teaspoon of the pumpkin seeds for the top of the bread.

2. Whisk the whole-wheat flour, all-purpose flour, oats, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl until combined. Add the butter pieces and rub them into the dry ingredients with the tips of your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse breadcrumbs. Stir in the remaining grated cheese, the remaining pumpkin seeds and all of the flax seeds into the dry ingredients.

3. Make a well in the center and pour in the buttermilk. Stir with a rubber spatula just until the mixture comes together; don’t overmix. Use the spatula to form the dough into a round piece as best as possible. The dough will be quite sticky, so don’t fret if it is not a perfect round ball.

4. Turn the lump of dough onto the parchment lined baking sheet. Dust your hands with a little flour and pat it into a 7-inch round, flat shape. Use a sharp knife to cut a 1-inch deep cross on top of the dough. Prick the center of each of the four triangles created by the cross with the point of a paring knife.

5. Brush the top of the loaf with buttermilk. Sprinkle the reserved grated cheese and pumpkin seeds over the top.

6. Bake for 10 minutes, then decrease the heat to 400 degrees F. Bake for an additional 15 to 20 minutes, or until the top is golden and the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when you tap it. (Total baking time is 25 to 30 minutes.) Cool on a rack before slicing. The bread is best eaten on the same day it is baked, but it makes delicious toast for a day or two more. 

Posted on March 30, 2011 and filed under Bread.

Artichokes, baby! With fettuccine and ricotta

Miniature artichokes are in the market now and I could not resist them, despite the labor that they entail. When you peel them back, they are the color of spring. Not the full, flush green of summer, but the tentative, delicate green of budding trees that makes you want to weep and sigh. A green that fills your soul with longing and pleasure, and makes the interminable and tedious winter recede into misty memory.

We’re not there quite yet in this land of ice and snow, but these baby thistles give me hope. And the snow, except for a few piles next to the rhododendrons in my garden, has melted. For now. One cannot be too cautious in the month of March.

An artichoke is mature when its petals have reached their peak growth but have not yet opened. A “baby” artichoke is not a baby at all, but grows at the base of the plant, and because its upstairs neighbors on the stalk shade it, it simply does not attain a very large size. As you prepare them, toss them into a bowl of acidulated water, since they turn brown quickly when exposed to the air.

So, what do you do with them? Ah, well, there’s a bit of a rub, but just a bit of one. Because they are small, they do not have the fuzzy inner “chokes” that the larger globe artichokes possess, so cleaning them is not really such a chore. Check out the tutorial below for details. You would treat a large artichoke in the exact same way, with one exception: you must scrape out the fuzzy choke with a sharp-edged spoon or paring knife.

How to prepare a baby artichoke:

Pull off the outer leaves of the artichoke until you are down to tender, light green leaves. There will be a lot of perceived waste. You must will yourself not to mind it.

Peel the stem: Insert a paring knife into the base of the artichoke and peel it back to remove the outer tough (and bitter) covering. Slice off about 1/4-inch of the thorny tip.

Halve and then quarter the artichoke and drop it into acidulated water. Repeat.

Whole wheat fettuccine with baby artichokes and ricotta (Serves 4)

Whole wheat pasta adds an earthy touch to this easy pasta. If you want to cheat, you could purchase frozen artichoke hearts and quarter them. It will save you about 15 minutes.

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

16 baby artichokes, tough outer leaves removed and quartered

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

1 pound whole wheat fettucine

1 cup ricotta salt and pepper

1/4 cup chopped parsley

Freshly grated Parmesan

1. Fill a medium bowl with cool water and add the lemon juice. Prepare the artichokes as directed above (see tutorial). Fill a large pot with water and bring it to a boil.

2. Melt the butter over medium heat in a large skillet. Add the garlic and as soon as it starts to sizzle, add the artichokes. Add 1/4 cup water, cover the pan, and cook for 5 minutes, or until the artichokes are tender.

3. Add a generous pinch of salt to the boiling water and cook the pasta according to the package directions until al dente.

4. Meanwhile, whisk the ricotta, lemon zest and 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water together in a large pasta bowl until creamy. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the parsley.

5. Reserve about 1/2 cup pasta water and drain the pasta. Add it to the pasta bowl with the ricotta and toss to coat the pasta. If necessary, add a little hot pasta water to attain a creamy consistency. Add the artichokes and toss again. Serve immediately with generous amounts of grated Parmesan.

Take a walk around the web for more on artichokes: Artichokes and grits from [no recipes] 

Sautéed baby artichokes (and more) from Simply Recipes 

Artichoke tapenade from David Leboviz

Fried baby artichokes from Steamy Kitchen

Grilled artichoke stems with tarragon garlic butter from White on Rice Couple 

Posted on March 12, 2011 and filed under Spring food.

When things fall apart (bake banana bread)

It could start with a furnace.

You come home after a couple of days away. It is mid-winter and mid-cold snap. A few days before, too far down the highway to turn back, you realized you had forgotten to set the heat on its energy-conserving temperature. Oh well. At least after a long ride home you can expect to open the back door to a toasty, welcoming sixty-eight degrees.

Wait a minute! It’s fifty-one in here. You think back to the cold snap a few years ago, and recall how your cranky old Victorian would not warm up no matter how high you set the thermostat. So you put on a couple of sweaters, your warmest and woolliest socks, and you crawl into bed under a down quilt and all the extra wool blankets you can steal from around the house.

After a few days, it warms up outside to an almost reasonable just-below-freezing temperature. Your house responds. It is now sixty-four degrees (heat still up to the max) but you can tough it out.

Wait another minute! What’s that funny smell?

Man of the House returns home from a trip and checks the oil burner. He calls the oil company. A logical, manly step that the little woman did not take. The flashlight-carrying guy with oil stained hands in the scruffy teal jacket drops by and takes a look.  Whoa! Many little things have gone awry. You immediately block them from your brain and cut to the bottom line. There’s a crack in the furnace. Oh, THAT explains the fine layer of soot you noticed seeping into every corner, graying the curtains, the walls, the moldings, and settling on top of each and every picture frame in each and every room. You stubbornly ignore it. It’s like living in New York City with the windows open you tell yourself. You can deal with it.

No you can’t.

You need a new furnace. And you need to insulate the mausoleum, the purchase of which was the biggest miscalculation you’ve made in your married life—for which mostly you are to blame. (Like Goldilocks, you’re still trying to get the size right.) So here you are with a heart full of regret and a white elephant that needs another huge influx of cash.

Now College Boy is pointing out a broken bit on the kitchen faucet. (That’s a new kitchen faucet, dammit.) The paint on the bathroom ceiling is starting to crack and curl and soon enough it will be gently cascading down like so many little snowflakes. The white slipcovers on your mother’s old furniture are beyond washing and restoring. You feel your life needs washing and restoring, too. Come to think of it, what

are

you doing with your life? Are you having identity crisis number nine hundred and ninety nine? Yes, you are.

This is the moment when you imagine walking out the door and never looking back. You envision a breezy little trailer on a deserted spit of beach where the sun often shines and the weather is always convenient.

Suddenly the deck of cards that is your life, the deck you so neatly and fastidiously stacked just so, starts to fall. You watch somewhat fascinated by the beauty of it. It winds and curls and you hear a faint flap flap flap as each card falls upon the next. It is not about the furnace. The furnace is simply the manifestation of a series of events gone wrong and they have taken you to this place, which at the moment, feels like it’s

all falling apart

.

There must be an upside to all this. You know there is. Think. Think.

Well, for one thing, people don’t change unless they have to. That’s a terrible truth, but it is a truth. Having a smackdown from your furnace or any other small to catastrophic event in your life can always be used to get your butt in gear.

Here’s another truth: when one door closes another door opens. Stupid platitudes are usually based on truth, so you shouldn’t ignore them just because they’re stupid platitudes. If you are too busy looking at the thing that’s falling apart you might not notice what’s opening up.

Notes to self, when things fall apart:

• Remember, you are the same person you were yesterday, before this mess.

• Fix what you can because, miraculously, some things can be fixed right away!

• Look for outside resources if you don’t have them yourself.

   (For instance, there are interest-free loans out there to cover heat emergencies)

• Think of a meltdown as an opportunity to make changes. They might be improvements.

• Limit self-pity to 15 minutes or one day, depending.

• Take a walk outside and breathe slowly. Do this as often as possible.

• Notice how, in nature, things are always falling apart and renewing. It’s normal.

• Allow yourself to not know the answer right away.

Make space for not knowing much of anything.

• It’s lonely out there in space. Make peace with that.

• Imagine a life that feels happy. Take notes.

• Sit quietly and breathe for several minutes at a time (aka meditation; let it be simple).

• When you can’t do anything about it, bake banana bread.

Espresso Banana Bread with Chocolate Covered Walnuts

I’ve been tinkering with banana bread for years. While this recipe is not health food by any means, it still contains some whole-wheat flour because I love the way it tastes with bananas. The idea of coating walnuts in chocolate comes from Jess Thomson at Hogwash (read her blog, you’ll like it.) I have finally gotten around to trying it, and lo and behold, it is easy and is indeed an epiphany. When baked in two pans, the loaves are somewhat flat, but in my book, that just adds to their homey feel. If you’re not careful you could down a half a loaf in no time. Save some to share with a friend.

Makes 2 small loaves

1/2 cup chopped bittersweet chocolate or chocolate chips (100 g)*

1 cup walnuts, broken in pieces (100g)*

3 to 4 ripe bananas

1 cup all-purpose flour (121g)

3/4 cup whole wheat flour (108 g)

1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder  (7.35g)

1/2 teaspoon baking soda (2.5g)

1/4 teaspoon salt (1.7g)

1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (1g)

3/4 cup brown sugar (180g)

2 large eggs

1/4 cup butter (1/2 stick), melted (57g)

1/4 cup olive oil (55g)

2 teaspoons vanilla extract (8g)

1/2 sour cream or crème fraiche (121g)

1/4 cup brewed espresso (59g) or 1 heaping teaspoon instant espresso dissolved in 1 tablespoon water

1. Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper. Butter and flour 2 small loaf pans (8-inches by 3 1/2-inches).

2. Melt the chocolate in a heatproof bowl over hot water or in the microwave at 30-second intervals. Stir the walnuts into the chocolate to coat them and spread them on the wax paper lined baking sheet so they are not touching. Refrigerate until firm while you make the batter.

3. Mash the bananas in a bowl with a potato masher or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer.

4. In a separate bowl, whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and nutmeg together.

5. Add the eggs, brown sugar, melted butter, walnut or olive oil, vanilla and sour cream to the bananas. Stir by hand with a whisk or with the paddle attachment of a stand mixer until well blended. Fold in the dry ingredients by hand until just blended.  Stir in the nuts.

6. Divide the batter between the loaf pans and bake for 40 to 50 minutes, until a toothpick poked into the center of a loaf emerges with only a few crumbs. Cool in the pans for 10 minutes and turn out on a rack to completely cool. Wrapped in plastic, the banana bread will keep for about 3 days at room temperature and can be frozen for up to 3 months.

*I haven't tried this, but you might consider using chocolate covered nuts (I think Trader Joe's has chocolate covered almonds.)

Note: You probably don’t want to eat bananas that are all speckly like this, but they are perfect for banana bread. When bananas are past their prime, FREEZE them for later: peel them and wrap them individually in plastic wrap. Pop them in a heavy-duty freezer bag and store them in the freezer until you are ready to use them. Defrost at room temperature or nuke them briefly in the microwave.

Blogging around:

Banana Bread (Simply Recipes)

Jess Thomson's Banana Bread (Hogwash)

Banana Cake (David Lebovitz)

Posted on February 27, 2011 and filed under Bread, Food gifts, Muffins and Tea Breads.

Goals, ambitions and a vegetable barley soup recipe

Don’t be confused by the blog title. I’m moving. Or trying to move. My tech skills are so limited it’s like trying to move twenty years of belongings to a new house in a VW bug. It will take a while. Not that I’ve been blogging for twenty years—though sometimes it feels like that—it’s just a slow process. Eventually I’ll be at sallypasleyvargas.com. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’m too impatient to have it all sewed up before I roll it out, so I hope you’ll tolerate going on the ride with me.

My new blog title “Cooking Lessons” more accurately reflects what I like to write about. Hint: it’s not the recipes. BUT, since I cook and bake and teach and write about food, of course I’ll be throwing in recipes and I hope they will make your lives easier or inspire you to cook.

I went to a blogger camp in January and had a wonderful time. I met a lot of good people, and came away with a lot of information and even more questions: Why I am blogging? And what do I want to blog about? (I’m still chewing on that. I’ll get back to you: I promised you a ride, didn’t I?)  My fellow campers had a variety of goals and ambitions, so I was forced to consider mine. The short take-away: goals and ambitions are overrated.

The main problem with goals and ambitions is that they’re so darn future-oriented. I’m finding a lot more peace living in the present and I’m trying to stay there. So how do you achieve or accomplish things without goals? I guess I’m loosening up on that one, too. My new acronym is NOMB: None. Of. My. Business. None of my damn business. Outcomes are just not what I want to live for. They’re so unpredictable and unreliable; worrying about them really cuts into your joie de vivre.

In this vein, I kind of backed away from lot of things that were making me uncomfortable (read, crazy.) I’ve been working on another book that I am now completely revamping, but the truth? Its publication is NOMB!! And when I thought about it, the other truth is: I really don’t care! This was a revelation. Not to say that I wouldn’t be thrilled if my thoughts see the light of day, but publishing a book is, like everything else, fleeting. And will the world be that much of a better place if my name is on the cover of a book? I seriously doubt it. If you could see me now, you would see me doing a little dance of freedom!

Living without goals is a lot harder in practice than it is in theory, so I’m taking it in small bites. I’m promising myself I can drink a hot cup of coffee and daydream, instead of running around in the morning trying to get a million things done so I can meet some self imposed goals. And I’ll do more stuff I really feel inspired and excited to do, instead of straining to get something done that fits in with my sometimes ill-advised ambitions. I’ll let you know how it goes. I feel a little tingle of joy just thinking about how much more fun life could be.

Now I’ll throw in a recipe, apropos of nothing. That more or less reflects my state of mind. Life is what happens while you’re busy cooking something. And this soup will help to pass the time while the snow melts. Even though I promised myself to stay in the present, that eventuality is one I really look forward to!

Vegetable Barley Soup

Serves 4

You can never have enough warming soups in your repertoire at this time of year, and this vegetable barley soup engenders a few variations. Looking for a filling vegetarian meal? Add a little freshly grated Parmesan and use water or vegetable stock; the soup has plenty of flavor without meat. Need to satisfy the meat lovers in your family? Add some cooked and sliced sausage or shredded leftover chicken. Either way, this is a satisfying and comforting way to reward yourself at the end of a chilly day.

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 clove garlic, finely chopped

3 medium carrots, cut in 3/8-inch dice

2 stalks celery, cut in 3/8-inch dice

1 leek, finely sliced

1 large thin-skinned potato such as Yukon Gold, cut in 3/8-inch dice

1/4 teaspoon dried thyme

1 can (15 ounces) whole tomatoes with juice, crushed in a bowl

3/4 cup barley

8 cups low-salt vegetable broth, chicken broth or water

1/2 teaspoon salt

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup frozen peas

1/4 cup chopped parsley, for garnish

1. In a large soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat until it shimmers. Add the onions, garlic, carrots, celery, leeks and potatoes to the pot and decrease the heat to medium low. Stir occasionally and cook the vegetables gently until they begin to soften, 8 to 10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and barley.

2. Pour in the stock and bring the soup to a simmer. Add the salt and pepper to taste. Simmer for 35 to 45 minutes, until the barley is soft. Taste and adjust the salt and pepper. Stir in the peas and cook until they are tender, about 5 minutes. Ladle the soup into warm bowls and garnish with parsley.

Read more about goals and ambitions at zenhabits.

Posted on February 13, 2011 and filed under Soups, Vegetarian, Winter food, Beans and Grains.