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

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- 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


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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.
Author Comment
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. <br />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!
Author Comment
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. <br /> <br />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. <br /> <br />Thanks for taking us to these great finds, much of what we come to Food52 for. <br /> <br />Have a great day, you've added to mine already! <br />
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
teamom December 4, 2011
What a horrible recipe!!!!! No depth. No flavour. "One head very fresh cauliflower" - as opposed to what? Half-fresh cauliflower? Water instead of vegetable stock? Only salt & pepper - no bay, no lovage, or any other herb? No finishing acid (vinegar, lemon juice, herbed vinegar, etc...) Oh, wait, "finish the soup with EVOO and freshly cracked pepper". Not. <br /> Please. You can do better than this. <br /> <br />
Amanda H. December 4, 2011
Our cooking staff, myself included, all tasted this recipe and loved it. Tastes can differ, of course; a range of opinions is what makes for a vibrant community such as this, but every community has its standards, and your tone falls outside of ours. In the future, if you wish to comment, please do so respectfully.
Amanda H. December 4, 2011
Our cooking staff, myself included, all tasted this recipe and loved it. Tastes can differ, of course; a range of opinions is what makes for a vibrant community such as this, but every community has its standards, and your tone falls outside of ours. In the future, if you wish to comment, please do so respectfully.
ejm December 6, 2011
As a reader who has benefitted greatly from the content and community approach that has been created here I would like to second Amanda's comments. <br /> <br />You may not like it, you may even actively dislike a recipe but lets contribute in a way that adds value, or not at all. I hope it was just that you were having a very bad day, if so I hope it got better.
teamom October 11, 2012
Hey there, just reread my post, and y'all are absolutely correct. I was way out of line with my tone. You have my most profound and sincerest apologies. <br />Yes, ejm, I must have been having a terrible day. More likely, I was probably in pain (have recently had hip surgery), and let it cloud my judgement. I promise to proofread everything at least three times from now on. Again, I do apologise, as I really like this site.
Ginny F. December 4, 2011
I couldn't wait to try this, as my husband is trying to eat more cruciferous veggies due to prostate cancer. This was indeed silky and creamy. I used fresh-picked, organic cauliflower. I added a quick squeeze of Meyer lemon and some red pepper flakes for balance and to pull out the flavor a bit. Quite yummy. The specific directions are helpful.
saltandserenity December 4, 2011
Kristen, your writing is so beautiful. I always have to read through a second time to make sure I didn't miss any of your clever prose, and then I feel compelled to run into the kitchen right away and make whatever you have written about. Thanks! Keep the genius recipes coming.
AmyCateCooks December 3, 2011
This looks like vichyssoise... Going to have to try it. I wonder how it would be if the cauliflower was roasted first?
Amanda H. December 3, 2011
Kristen, it's such a joy to read your columns. Looking forward to the next one!
Fairmount_market December 2, 2011
Thanks for sharing a recipe that otherwise would definitely not have caught my attention. P.S. I'm a big fan of FNLs. Maybe the Dinner and a Movie column could be devoted to Dinner and FNL pairing (they serves some might tasty looking BBQ).
la D. December 2, 2011
I come to Paul Bertolli's Cooking by Hand again and again for inspiration. The chef loves ingredients, a passion embraced by my own heart. I think cauliflower does best one on one, in a soup or simply sauteed in butter until golden brown and nutty. It's not the life of the party, but instead the good friend you turn to for a bit of quiet comfort. Great genius column this week!
Greenstuff December 2, 2011
In his headnote, Bertolli says that cauliflower gets its smoothness when blended with pectin, while butternut squash and celery root get if from starch. He suggests that this difference makes the flavor more delicate, unable to stand up to chicken stock, cream, and flavors like curry. I'm wondering whether it's why a like plain roasted cauliflower (olive oil, salt, and pepper) more than the ones with spice mixtures... Something to think about.
sygyzy December 2, 2011
I made cauliflower soup once. The recipe was very similar to this one. I was surprised to find it kind of bitter, in a strange way. Has anyone else experienced this?
fiveandspice December 2, 2011
Ok Kristen, you've sold me on it. I've tried many recipes that were cauliflower and water or broth based soups, always with this starry eyed hope that it will be a wonderful silky satisfying puree, and thus far each one I've tried has been horrendous and sent me straight back into the kitchen for some cream. I have almost a Pavlovian response now (of the negative sort) to cauliflower soup recipes that don't have cream and claim to be delicious. I've been bruised. But, I'm going to set aside all those soups and I will try again. Your genius picks have never steered me wrong so far (not that I ever suspected they would).
gingerroot December 2, 2011
Kristen, I love this column! Not only for the genius recipes, but also your writing. You have a way of making me want to drop whatever I'm doing and make each recipe, immediately. Like this one. I'm off to find some cauliflower!
thirschfeld December 2, 2011
It is funny how he really doesn't like cauliflower. Still one of the most underrated cookbooks in my mind.
BiCoastalCook December 2, 2011
A soup that eats like a hug! What a wonderful phrase. Thank you for a lovely detour in the midst of my work day. I think I'm making this soup soon.
mtrelaun December 2, 2011
This is genius. Definitely a clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose recipe!
mrslarkin December 2, 2011
omg i love this! As magical as the Carnitas recipe. Thanks Kristen. Can't wait to try this one.
EmilyC December 2, 2011
Oh my, this soup looks good. I love cauliflower soup. And the picture at the top is a thing of beauty. I've always been tempted by this cookbook -- might need to add it to my wish list.
Droplet December 2, 2011
Wonderfully written.