Long Reads

Paul Bertolli's Cauliflower Soup

December  2, 2011

Every week, Food52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: A little purity between holiday binges.

cauliflower soup

Shop the Story

- Kristen

If you found a recipe that told you to put a cauliflower and an onion in a pot, then add water, then add water ... then add some more water, you'd probably put down the cookbook and wander away looking for a cheeseburger, right?

cauliflower & onion

It sounds a little too Charles Dickens, like something that would be served to 19th century prisoners or sad orphans in a musical. It's downright grim, which is why when Simran and Stacie at A Little Yumminess advised me of its inner genius, I felt it was my duty to try it.

I should have known. Paul Bertolli, who was at the helm of Chez Panisse and Oliveto for over 20 years, knows exactly how to make a vegetable -- a rather dejected vegetable at that -- become the best it can be. (In the language of Friday Night Lights, which we speak fluently at FOOD52, he is a kingmaker, the Coach Eric Taylor of the crucifera we never thought would amount to much.)

In Cooking by Hand, Bertolli's IACP award-winning book of recipes and essays, his formula for cauliflower soup is precise to the ounce and simple to follow, even if with a raised eyebrow. (Seriously, more water?)

Paul Bertolli  Cooking By Hand

It's tempting to add crème fraîche or bacon, vadouvan or a thick lump of butter -- trust me, we love those things and all of them would be delicious -- but I dare you to not add a thing.

When you curb your instincts to overseason and overfatten, yes, sometimes you end up with gruel -- but sometimes you end up with a supple, magical puree, one that's delicate and sweet and smooth as a flannel scarf. Even if you're not a fan of cauliflower (Bertolli isn't), you might make an exception for this soup.

cauliflower soup

Like butternut squash, cauliflower is one of those wintry vegetables that puts up no resistance. With a little boiling and swirling in a blender, it completely dissolves into a soup that eats like a hug.

After all that turkey and pie, and before whatever indulgences lie ahead, I think we're all ready for that.

cauliflower soup

Paul Bertolli's Cauliflower Soup

From Cooking by Hand (Clarkson Potter, 2003)

Serves 8

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion (6 ounces), sliced thin
1 head very fresh cauliflower, about 1-1/2 pounds
Salt, to taste
5 1/2 cups hot water, divided
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

See a slideshow and the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Want more genius? Try Meta Given's Pumpkin Pie.

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].


Photos by James Ransom


Listen & Subscribe

From our new podcast network, The Genius Recipe Tapes is lifelong Genius hunter Kristen Miglore’s 10-year-strong column in audio form, featuring all the uncut gems from the weekly column and video series. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts so you don’t miss out.

Listen & Subscribe

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Arianne
  • fang2mp
  • baconb
  • pcskinner
  • suepar
I'm an ex-economist, lifelong-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007, before returning to the land of Dutch Crunch bread and tri-tip barbecues in 2020. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."


Arianne November 3, 2019
Ok, I'm a convert. I made this tonight and loved it. Do we think it'd freeze well? I'd love to serve it at a dinner after my wedding, but I don't really want to cook on the day.
fang2mp November 1, 2013
My family likes this soup, although I noticed it tasted better the next day. So this could be something that can be pre-made the night before a lunch/dinner party. Another thing is, my 6 month old baby loves it as well!! I need to find more recipes like this so that I could introduce her to more vegetables.
Kristen M. November 1, 2013
So glad your family liked this. Merrill's column about feeding her baby Clara should provide some good vegetable inspiration too, if you haven't seen it: http://food52.com/blog/category/163-cooking-for-clara
baconb October 14, 2013
I made this over the weekend and it was really yummy. I went back to the farm to get more cauliflower to make more! I had it "straight up" the first time and then added curry powder and hot pepper flakes the second time. It's so versatile which is wonderful. Thank you for a great recipe!
pcskinner October 17, 2012
Who would know it's cauliflower? I made this wonderful smooth and creamy soup today on a cool damp October. I can tell you this will not be my last time! I had a small bowl with the suggested EVOO and freshly cracked black pepper first, then had another small bowl with a dash or two of Curry, then just had to have another small bowl with freshly ground Nutmeg....ALL equally as delicious! This is very satisfying I will add. You feel as though it was something quiet high in calories such as thick cream for the base ( I actually can not detect the cauliflower taste) I will have more tomorrow over steamed asparagras ....the possibilities seem endless! Thank YOU for the wonderful recipe Paul,
suepar June 11, 2012
This is excellent and entirely simple. However, it's only as good as the freshness of your cauliflower.
If you've bought yours at the Stop & Shop instead of ripping it from the earth this morning, I WOULD go ahead and use chicken stock and a touch of cream.
Bill C. February 1, 2012
I tried this soup tonight (with a mid winter cauliflower from a chain grocery store) and it was delicious. I was surprised at how much salt was needed to balance the sweetness of the cauliflower, but I didn't over do it and had a delicious snow white puree at the end. For those who are interested, the simplicity and purity of this recipe (as well as the brilliant white color without a trace of dairy) reminded me of the recipe for Silken Turnip Soup from The Gift of Southern Cooking by Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock. Between the two though, I think I prefer this simple cauliflower soup.
Beth B. January 7, 2012
I can't believe how good this recipe is. I was tempted to use chicken broth instead of water but followed the recipe exactly. It's going to be one of our family regular dishes. So delicious!
rep18 December 11, 2011
made this last week and it was delicious. at first i undersalted it, but then with just a touch more it was a perfect light-but-cozy winter dinner!
Federico_ December 8, 2011
This recipe was fabulous and it's simplicity itself. I had to white knuckle it to resist adding anything to it, but it absolutely didn't need anything more than the pepper and olive oil. The texture and flavor were perfection itself. It will become a regular dish in my kitchen. And yes, I too like this genius column.
A L. December 7, 2011
Thanks for featuring this recipe at our suggestion. You have done it great justice with your wonderful writing. We just love the velvet-y texture you can coax out of such humble ingredients. I've been working my way through all the other genius recipes as well as the recipes Paul Bertolli's excellent book. [Next summer we are going to attack his chapter on tomatoes]. Thanks again!
how T. December 7, 2011
Rocked this soup last night! Added some toasted garlic baguette slices to add some crunch... the leftovers were delicious today and perfect for the rainy weather here in Manhattan! PS. Sip a little Laurent Barth Gewürztraminer and you've got yourself a perfect meal.
how T. December 7, 2011
Rocked this soup last night! Added some toasted garlic baguette slices to add some crunch... the leftovers were delicious today and perfect for the rainy weather here in Manhattan!
Kristen M. December 7, 2011
Hi everyone, thanks for all your amazing support and for reporting back when you try these recipes. (And for sending me tips -- always love that!)
MrsWheelbarrow December 6, 2011
Kristen, my husband read this over my shoulder and said, first, what great writing, and second, can this be dinner tonight? Thank you!
MrsWheelbarrow December 6, 2011
Kristen, my husband read this over my shoulder and said, first, what great writing, and second, can this be dinner tonight? Thank you!
Hilarybee December 6, 2011
I made this on Sunday. It was really excellent. I did use leeks instead of onion because my CSA box had about 8 leeks in it...so I used three small leeks instead of the onion. It really did taste like cauliflower and was a really nice, light sunday supper. My husband took the leftovers to work yesterday and said it was still good the next day.
ejm December 6, 2011
Thanks Kristen - for this lovely recipe as well as your cumulative efforts and lovely writing as you bring us new ideas.

As I just posted on the actual recipe this tastes like cauliflower, often something difficult to achieve with this vegetable. Not only a lovely soup but I suspect it will take well to other additions.

Thanks for taking us to these great finds, much of what we come to Food52 for.

Have a great day, you've added to mine already!
barbarac December 5, 2011
Genius recipe is right! I had my doubts - I adore cauliflower soup, but my usual recipe uses chicken stock, cheese (lots of it) and a red pepper rouille. I practically had to tie my hands behind my back to stick to the recipe, but I did, and it was amazing. Not sure where all the "bland" comments come from - it was earthy, silky, rich, warm and so, so satisfying. Truly, a revelation. Just to make sure my tastebuds weren't deceiving me (and because I'm living in Provence for the winter - yay), I tried a portion with fresh goat cheese picked up in the market this morning. Good, but I liked the basic recipe better. Then I tried some with a swirl of rouille. Still, I liked the basic recipe better. Not only have you made a believer out of me with this simple two ingredient soup, you've also provided a fantastic and tasty option (for those nights we need to be righteous about our diets!) to vegetable bisques fattened by cream, butter and cheese. Thank you -= PS love love love Food52!
Jersygirl December 4, 2011
I made this delicious soup today. I agree, the column is a great read and convinced me to try a recipe that I would have immediately passed on. The immersion blender worked fine, as did a couple of twists of white pepper.
amybanana December 4, 2011
Not good - thin, watery and tasteless