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At the farmers’ market in Callicoon, I had a short discourse with a vendor on the benefits of cooler weather on such crops as Brussels sprouts, cabbage and cauliflower. The lower temperatures bring out the sweetness, she told me. It was a grey, blustery day, and I bought a beautiful specimen from a bin of cauliflowers to make cream of cauliflower and cheddar cheese soup. I hadn’t made the recipe in years, but recalled it fondly.
It was a lot of work breaking down the humongous vegetable. I hacked away and cut it into small florets. I filled a bowl with two cups of the tiniest ones and blanched them in boiling chicken broth. I don’t like a smooth creamed soup devoid of any crunch, so thought I’d add the littlest florets at the last minute to add texture.
I chopped a large onion, a couple of leeks, and some stalks of celery and threw an entire stick of butter into a large Dutch oven. In went the chopped vegetables along with the larger cauliflower florets. I sautéed these awhile before adding some flour to act as a thickener. I stirred that around a minute or two, then poured in chicken broth, sherry, and half & half and brought it all to a boil. I immediately turned down the heat to a simmer and cooked the mixture until the vegetables had softened enough for me to lower a hand-held immersion blender into the pot and puree the soup until smooth. Next came handfuls of good, aged cheddar cheese, and when that had nicely melted, I tossed in the baby florets I’d cooked earlier.
The soup was an unappetizing pale beige color, so I went to my garden and grabbed a hunk of chives that had yet to be hit by a frost and snipped them into tiny bits as garnish.
My sister, Janet, and I sat down to lunch with high expectations. Luckily, I had decided not to make the soup the only dish and had grilled a couple of small, juicy Delmonico steaks. The meat was delicious—crazy-rare the way we like it and with a little chew, though still tender. The soup was a snooze. I had seasoned it plenty with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and the sherry and cheddar should’ve been enough to give it oomph. We dutifully spooned the dull soup into our mouths as I wondered if I hadn’t made it with broccoli in the past, but the recipe had clearly called for cauliflower. Janet pointed to the chunk of meat on her plate. “The steak is absolutely perfect,” she said. Little comfort.
The cauliflower I’d chosen had been so large that I had needed to double the recipe and there was a good deal of soup leftover. I gave it to a friend who is creative and takes great pleasure in doctoring dishes I am about to dump, making them her own. She emailed me the next day to report that she had added one minced canned chipotle pepper with some of its thick juice; more cheddar cheese; some grated pecorino Romano sheep’s milk cheese and a splash of sherry. Just before serving, she tasted the soup for seasoning and squirted in some fresh lemon juice and, for good measure, tossed in crunchy croutons she’d made from a locally baked baguette. Her family had a fine meal, she reported. The following day she sent me a recipe she’d found for Indian-spiced cauliflower soup. The long list of ingredients contained seven different spices, garlic, fresh hot chili peppers, tomatoes and minced ginger root. Enough said about what cauliflower brings to the party.
The following weekend I searched my recipe files for another warming autumnal soup, and, indeed, I found that I had made the soup with broccoli as well in the past. It has more inherent depth of flavor. And it looks more appealing too.
Broccoli and Cheddar Cheese Soup
1 large head (at least 1 ½ pounds) broccoli, trimmed and cut into florets
2 medium waxy potatoes, peeled (or not, if thin-skinned) and cut into small chunks
2 small onions, finely chopped
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
5 cups chicken broth
¼ cup sherry, Madeira, or Marsala
¼ pound (4 ounces) sharp white cheddar cheese, grated
¼ cup heavy cream or half & half
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Set aside 2 cups loosely packed broccoli florets. In a medium saucepan bring 3 cups of the chicken broth to a boil. Add the 2 cups florets and bring back to a boil. Cook for about 4 - 6 minutes, just until crisp-tender and easily pierced with a sharp knife. Remove the florets with a slotted spoon to a colander and reserve broth. Let the florets cool in the colander, and then coarsely chop them and set aside. In a large saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté, stirring frequently, for about 5 - 6 minutes, until translucent. Add uncooked broccoli florets, potatoes, both the reserved chicken broth and the remaining 2 cups broth and the sherry, and bring to a boil. Immediately, lower the heat to a simmer and cook, uncovered, until vegetables are very tender, about 20 - 25 minutes. Remove from heat and puree with a hand-held immersion blender or in batches in a blender, being careful to fill it only half-way each time, if using a blender. Return soup to the stove-top on very low heat. Add the half & half or cream and then the cheddar cheese, and stir until warmed through and cheese is melted. Add reserved, cooked florets to soup and season to taste with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Serve immediately.