Friday, December 21, 2012

Leeks and Cauliflower and Smoked Cheese, Oh My!

There are a lot of moments from Seinfeld that even now, almost 15 years after the show came to an end, I like to refer to, especially scenes from the early seasons or those surrounding George's time with the Yankees.  (The Yankees weren't bad then, but they also weren't dominant; seeing them now  losing out on free agents to the cheap Pirates, or having to turn to creaky old members of the Red Sox to patch holes, I'm personally excited at the prospect of a new era of making fun of the Yankees.)

One of the bits from the show that I never tire of referring back to is when George gets stuck bringing the same calzone to Yankees owner George Steinbrenner for lunch, day after day after day.  As Steinbrenner says:
When I find something I like I stick with it. From 1973 to 1982 I ate the exact same lunch every day. Turkey chili in a bowl made out of bread. Bread bowl, George. First you eat the chili then you eat the bowl. There's nothing more satisfying than looking down after lunch and seeing nothing but a table.
I hate to admit this, but I can be a little like Steinbrenner, especially when I get into a routine.  Sometimes it's a good old PB&J sandwich for lunch, or maybe a nice smoked turkey and lite muenster one.  I can go a couple weeks like that.  And then it's on to a different sandwich.

But I live with someone who is on the complete opposite end of this spectrum.  The anti-Steinbrenner, if you will.  If one of us makes too much of a dish--even one she likes--I'll end up eating inordinate amounts of it so it doesn't go bad in the refrigerator, simply because she got tired of it. 

So when I got the request, only a couple weeks after making a pot of it, to cook more of Chef Carolina Fidanza's Cauliflower, Leek, and Gruyere Soup, which had been featured in an October issue of New York Magazine, I knew we had a really good recipe on our hands.

This soup, which originally comes from Fidanza's new cookbook, Saltie, is described by the chef as "a fancy version of broccoli and Cheddar," but it's also fairly rustic in the way the cauliflower is broken up into small chunks and the leeks are chopped up, and then a cup of parsley tossed in near the end.

New York Magazine adapted the recipe from Saltie, and I'll keep it the same except for one change, which you can take or leave depending on how I sell it here.  The recipe originally calls for a five ounce chunk of Gruyere, which is to be melted in the soup as it cooks, but I ended up making what at first felt like a bit of an embarrassing tweak: instead of picking up some good Gruyere, I decided to go with a processed (get out!) hunk of applewood-smoked Gruyere I found in the cheese section at Hannaford.

It was the potential for a little smokiness (and heck, the price difference didn't hurt) that appealed to me in that moment, and as it turned out, I was pleased with the decision.  There's something about the smoky flavor that plays off really nicely against the richness that comes from the cheese itself and the chicken stock and butter in the recipe.  These tastes pair well with the pleasant, mild flavor of the leeks--an underrated ingredient in American cooking, as argued here--and the slight nuttiness of the cauliflower.

 Every spoonful of this chunky soup not only packs a varied profile of flavors, but an enjoyable balance of textural elements as well.  The recipe calls for just enough liquid added to cover the vegetables in the pot, and once that reduces over the 20-30 minutes of simmering time, you're left with a product that's not too liquidy. 

The recipe suggests breaking down the florets of the cauliflower into smaller florets; the first time I made the dish, I broke them down into very tiny pieces.  The second time I left them a little larger, which saved a bit of time.  Either way works.  And make sure to break apart and use as much of the stems as possible.  Nothing says rustic like some pieces of stem.

There's only so much I can say to sell this recipe.  It's good, it's simple, and I'm not going to bother to adapt the version from New York Magazine, other than the cheese idea.  It's getting cold outside; go ahead and introduce a new soup recipe to your repertoire.  And then if you get hooked on it, obsessed like Steinbrenner, you'll be totally justified.  Enjoy.

Caroline Fidanza's Cauliflower, Leek, and Gruyere Soup
Adapted by New York Magazine from Saltie, by Caroline Fidanza

Serves four

1 head cauliflower
3 tbs. unsalted butter
3 tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
4 leeks, white and tender green parts, thinly sliced on the bias
Kosher salt
1 chunk Gruyère or a melty, smoky cheese (about 5 ounces)
Chicken stock, as needed (about 4 cups)
1 cup fresh parsley

Prep the cauliflower: (1) Remove outer leaves. (2) Cut into large florets. (3) Break apart into small florets with your hands or a knife.

In a soup pot over medium-high heat, melt the butter in the olive oil. When the butter begins to sizzle, add the leeks and a pinch of salt. Sauté the leeks until they begin to wilt, about 5 minutes. Add the cauliflower and another pinch of salt, and cook the cauliflower and leeks until they start to come together, about 3 minutes longer. Add the Gruyère, and give everything a good stir. Add just enough chicken stock to cover the vegetables. Turn the heat down to low, and simmer until the cauliflower is tender, 20 to 30 minutes. At this point, the cheese will have mostly melted. Taste and adjust the seasoning, stir in the parsley, and serve hot.


  1. Yum! I sent this to my sister. I am enjoying your blog, but I don't love the name. Maybe it'll grow on me.

    1. Thanks--it's a great little recipe, hope she enjoys it. And yeah, I get that with the name, but there's probably no turning back at this point!