venerdì 3 febbraio 2012
Soup of the Evening, Beautiful Soup
One of the last teachers was an Algerian with a bright eye and ear. “What,” he asked me with a subtle air of impudent challenge, for he was politically wary and like to ascribe this wariness to cultural gaps (mine, not his), “is a beautiful sentence to you – a perfect phrase?” Without any thought, I answered, “Soup of the evening, beautiful Soup.”
- M.F.K. Fisher, With Bold Knife and Fork
It’s cold here in Tuscany, thanks to winds from Siberia which assaulted our shores two nights ago and dumped a pile of snow in our back yard – indeed, in many an Italian back yard. We receive mixed signals about how long this is going to last: two weeks, says one school of thought. All month, says another.
Both are horrifying. It’s not supposed to snow in this part of the world, the land of silver-gray olive trees, and rustling cypresses. At this time of year, it’s supposed to snow in places like Connecticut, where a friend reports that the temperature yesterday was 59°F. A Canadian friend in Toronto wrote to say that we were receiving the snow intended for them.
This is the first snow fall for the Puppers, and they revel in it. Many years ago, when Tillie experienced her first snow fall in upstate New York, she minced her way through it. Not these Puppers: they attacked it with gusto, and spent the first morning after the snow fall ignoring freezing temperatures. They opted to spend the entire morning outside thrashing around.
We, instead, have not. We’ve hunkered down. Hunkering down, culinary-speaking – and of what else do I write? – means carbohydrates, and lots of ‘em. Last night’s dinner was baked polenta with a venison ragù. The venison couldn’t have been more local (we probably knew it when it was a deer), and organic to boot. We’d been eating it for a couple of days, and were somewhat tired of it, but it was Canine Inappropriate, as I’d laced the sauce with generous amounts of dark chocolate (can be toxic to dogs) and hot pepper (our dogs like hot food).
The mixed greens/sliced cucumber/mushroom salad went untouched. Instead we went for the goat/cow’s cheese, a nutty, totally satisfying cheese from Switzerland. We would have gone for another cheese from Switzerland, a soft, supple cow’s milk cheese embedded in herbs, but Harry got to it while I was engrossed in a book. The Scallion caught him at the end, munching on a piece of toast. Oh well.
The first day of the snow, we invited the Scallion’s mother to lunch, and we started with a cauliflower soup with Parmesan cheese. Two nights ago it was Jane Grigson’s most delicious vegetable soup, made different by the addition of crushed allspice berries. We ignored the salad then, too. Tonight it will be Jane’s cauliflower/fennel soup (both are in season just now).
To my mind, it’s hard to get excited about cauliflower – unless it forms part of a perfectly formed curry laced with so much spice it all but disappears – or if the florets are fried, as they do them at a lovely trattoria in Florence.
The English have a dish called cauliflower cheese, and though there are variations on it, it tastes pretty much like it sounds.
“Cauliflower,” writes the late, great Alan Davidson, “[is] a variety of the common CABBAGE in which flowers have begun to form but have stopped growing at the bud stage … [it is] therefore richer in vitamins and minerals than other brassicas.” He then goes on to say that we really don’t know where it comes from – perhaps the Near East (doesn’t it seem as if most everything hails from there?) or Cyprus. Or more likely, the Arabs (if not the Near East, then Arabia).
Well, a couple of days ago I had a head of cauliflower, and I had some cheese … in this case, not just any cheese, but a superlatively good hunk of Parmesan picked up in … yes, Parma. Hence the following recipe.
The book I was absorbed in (Dorothy Whipple’s They Knew Mr. Knight) when Harry ate the cheese has a paragraph that had me scratching my head – not because of the book (Dorothy Whipple is marvelous) but because of the nature of the comfort food.
The breadwinner of the family, Thomas Blake, has just come home from a most trying day. He has a ne’er-do-well brother, Edward.
“Did you see Edward?” asked Celia.
“I saw him,” said Thomas grimly. He was reluctant to say more, but Celia, with wifely disregard of his reluctance, persisted.
“What did you do about it?”
“Oh, I’ve taken him on at the works,” admitted Thomas, frowning.
“Have some more cauliflower,” invited Celia soothingly.
Zuppa di cavolfiore con Parmigiano/Cauliflower soup with Parmesan cheese
6 c. cauliflower florets
1½ c. leek, white part only, finely chopped
2 T. butter
4 c. vegetable broth
1 c. white wine
1½ c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Grated nutmeg, optional
¼ c. cream, optional
Prepare the vegetables before starting out.
Melt the butter in a deep pan over medium heat, and add the leek. Cook ‘til softened but not golden or browned. Add the cauliflower, toss to coat, and pour in the vegetable broth. Bring to a boil, lower heat, and simmer for about 20 minutes (or until the cauliflower is pliant). Add the wine about halfway through.
Remove from the stove, let cool slightly, and press through a food mill on a medium blade (if you want a more refined soup, run it through again on the smallest blade; if you don’t have a food mill or are simply lazy, throw it into a blender).
Return the contents into the pan, and add a couple of gratings of nutmeg and/or the cream.
Alan Davidson, The Oxford Companion to Food, New York, 1999.
M.F.K. Fisher, “Especially of the Evening,” in With Bold Knife and Fork, Berkeley, 1968.
Jane Grigson, English Food, London, 1974.
Dorothy Whipple, They Knew Mr. Knight, London, 2003 (reprint). See www.persephonebooks.co.uk.
For fried cauliflower florets, take yourself to lunch (no dinner)at da Sergio, Piazza San Lorenzo 8/r, 055/281 941, closed Sundays. Or make your own: see Marcella Hazan’s in The Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, New York, 1992.
In Memoriam: Cocco (b. 2003 - d. 2 February 2012): a most noble, loving golden retriever. He's now in most excellent company in the Happy Hunting Ground, and will be sorely missed by Terry and all who knew him.