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Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup (and Jazz Improv and Not Being Too Uptight)

Please forgive another cauliflower recipe. They've been on sale and I've always liked cauliflower more than broccoli anyhow.

(That reminds me....Now we enter a long parenthetical comment that my editor would tell me doesn't add to the post and I should just delete it. But this editor is a figment of my imagination, and my imagination is a little weak. We'll address that in a moment. My boyfriend, B, and I are sitting down to a yummy meal of Ziti with Sausage, Onions, and Fennel when he asks, "Why don't you ever add broccoli to the pasta sauce?"
Me: What? Do you even like broccoli? I haven't been buying it because I thought you didn't like it.
B: I don't. Except in pasta sauce. It's good in that.
Tip: If I'm cooking for you on a regular basis, I want to know your likes and dislikes so that I can make something we'll both enjoy. Also, if I'm making something I know you don't like, I can call you at work and warn you to get some takeout for yourself unless you're up for eating that Linguine with Artichokes and Leeks dish that I can't believe you don't like.)

Where were we? Oh yes...Indian-spiced cauliflower soup. On one of those nights when I had warned B to get something else for his own dinner, he had brought home some takeout from The Kebab Factory in Cambridge, MA. Chicken Tikka Masala. Always perfectly cooked there. I love their all-you-can-eat brunches too since then I'm not restricted to a single dish and can sample all I want. The dishes that really sing to me there are their soups. Cream of spinach soup. Cream of mushroom soup. Cream of cauliflower soup. It doesn't matter what vegetable they've chosen to puree and season to perfection, I'll want a taste of it. So I've been looking for recipes that would let me recapture that taste. Especially now that we live an hour away and can't just pick some up on the way home.

3 photos of food from The Kebab Factory. naan, spinach soup, and a bunch of dishes from the buffet
Some food from The Kebab Factory

I've been reading The Improvisational Cook by Sally Schneider. I haven't cooked anything from it and the ideas aren't new but I think I'm a little more open to such ideas now. I've browsed other cookbooks that nudge you into experimenting in the kitchen, following your tastebuds to whip up something tasty with whatever happens to be in the kitchen. This always seemed like magic to me. It reminded me of jazz musicians who would just hear a little riff, and then from that handful of notes, they'd spin an entire piece that they would make up out of nowhere. I took piano lessons for ten years and I never learned to do that. I wish I could. I've tried here and there but I'm always too worried about playing the wrong notes.

For years, the same thing happened in the kitchen. I followed a recipe with the same precision I followed instructions for a chemistry lab experiment. If the recipe called for a cup of broth, I filled the glass measuring cup and then crouched down to be eye-level with the curve of the meniscus to verify it was just right. I'd use a ruler to make sure that my baking pans were the right size and then just not make a dish if I didn't own the size that the recipe called for. I removed muffins from the oven at exactly 14 minutes even if they weren't done yet. The recipe said so.

My boyfriend at the time, M, was more of an intuitive cook. We'd get on each other's nerves all the time. He'd wonder why I was eating half-baked muffins and try to convince me that the recipe was just a guideline and that I should at least feel free to adjust it enough to finish cooking the dishes. Meanwhile, I'd turn my back on the stove for just a moment and I'd return to see M tossing something into the skillet, throwing me into a panic.
Me: What's that? What are you doing?!
M: I threw in some bacon.
Me: (waving the recipe in his face) What bacon? There's no bacon in this recipe!
M: Repeat after me: bacon makes everything better!
Me: (plaintively) Now this dish is ruined...

Of course it wasn't ruined. Bacon really does make everything better. If you like bacon. (For those of you who keep kosher and have never had the pleasure of eating bacon, head over to Dickson's Farmstand Meats in Chelsea Market in New York City. Ask to try a slice of the duck bacon. Buy all you can afford and go home, grateful for your good fortune. I regret not buying a pound of it to bring home with us. For you vegetarians, I don't know what to suggest. Is Fakin'Bacon any good? I've been meaning to try it.)

Over the years, I've taken baby steps towards developing a feel for food and how things go together. I've adapted recipes to suit my needs and desires. I've even occasionally just whipped something up. It still makes me giddy whenever I do that and it tastes good. But despite a few initial attempts, I hadn't managed to come up with any soups that tasted like those from The Kebab Factory.

Imagine my hopefulness when I saw this recipe for Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup. Poking around online, I found that this was a recipe from Mark Bittman's How to Cook Everything Vegetarian. Even better! A recipe from a name I trust. The one lonely review on recipezaar said that it was nice but that it was too mild at first and they had to double the spices. "Why would Bittman mess up the spicing?" I wondered as I started making soup.

photo of cut up ingredients

Having learned that cauliflower leaves were edible, I just chopped the whole head of cauliflower up and washed everything. Mostly followed the recipe as is but I didn't have any yogurt so I used heavy cream instead. I got to the end and tasted it. As the review had hinted, it was kind of bland. I doubled the seasonings and tasted again. Promising, but still not quite there. B tasted and recommended more spices and more cream. And then....oh and then, magic. I had my soup. I don't know if it tastes like that from The Kebab Factory since it's been a while since I tasted theirs but this soup gives me the same warm, fuzzy, thrilled-with-life feelings.

I was so happy that I made this recipe again a few days later, this time with spinach. I was riding high on improvisational success. I basically used our adapted recipe and threw in a pound of spinach instead of the cauliflower. Cooked, blended everything. Couldn't wait to taste it. I was already planning to repeat with mushrooms and then carrots. But when I tasted my spinach soup, tears came to my eyes. No, not tears of joy. It was way too spicy. I quickly diced up a potato, simmered that and pureed again. A little better but still plenty of kick. Clearly, spinach couldn't stand up to quite as much garam masala as the cauliflower could. OK. Lesson learned.

Few more days later, I returned to the cauliflower soup. I happily puttered around the kitchen, inhaling the smell of the onions and garlic and cumin and garam masala. B agreed that it smelled awesome but said that something in it was making his eyes water. I had noticed my nose had started running but shrugged it off. I dumped in the cauliflower and simmered until I could puree. Came time to taste and -- so spicy! What happened?! I reviewed the steps. I had measured correctly. I had used all the right ingredients. What was different?

And then I remembered I had a lot of garam masala in the house. I had the little jar of garam masala from McCormick that I had bought at a regular grocery store. And I had a big box of garam masala I had picked up at a little Indian grocery store for half the price of the McCormick jar. The first time I had made this cauliflower soup, I had used the McCormick jar. The next two times I made this Indian-spiced soup, I had reached for the box from India. The folks in India make a much spicier garam masala blend than the folks at McCormick.

Oddly, adding more salt seemed to help alleviate the spiciness. I've never heard of that solution but it really helped. That reminds me of a time I ate a Spicy Lamb with Cumin and Cilantro dish. B and I wept our way through eating it. It was so spicy but it was so tasty anyhow so we kept eating. And at the end I had a bite with some cilantro and realized, "Oh! The cilantro lessens the spiciness!" So now I understand why there's cilantro in salsas. What other ingredients make spiciness more tolerable? I know dairy things like milk and yogurt help. What else haven't I learned?

Now I'm way off topic. The point is that this cauliflower soup is awesome and flexible if you want to tweak it. Be careful with the garam masala though!

small photo of Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup

Indian Spiced Cauliflower Soup
Adapted from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian
(original recipe follows below)

2T canola oil
1 Tbsp garam masala (start with 1 tsp and add more if you like)
1 Tbsp plus 1 tsp ground cumin
1 onion, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets, include the leaves (chopped up)
salt and pepper
1/2 cup white wine (used broth)
3 cups vegetable or chicken broth (or even just water)
1 cup heavy cream (or milk) (instead of yogurt)

  1. Heat a soup pot to medium and add oil to pan.
  2. Add garama masala and cumin and stir for 30 seconds.
  3. Add garlic, onion, and cauliflower plus a good pinch of salt and some pepper. Stir regularly until onions are soft – about 10 minutes.
  4. Add wine (or broth) and cook down for a minute or two.
  5. Add broth, cover, and bring to a simmer. Cook until cauliflower is very tender, 15-20 minutes.
  6. Cool slightly and put through blender.
  7. Return to pot on low heat and whisk in cream (or yogurt).
  8. Taste and correct for seasoning. This is where you can add more garam masala if you want more heat, for example.
  9. Serve topped with cilantro and pepper.

Original recipe:
Indian Spiced Cauliflower Soup
(makes 3-4 servings)
from How to Cook Everything Vegetarian by Mark Bittman

2T canola oil
1t garam masala
1t cumin seeds
1 onion, sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 head cauliflower, broken into small florets
salt and pepper
1/2C white wine
3C vegetable or chicken stock
1C yogurt
cilantro for garnish(optional)

Heat a soup pot to medium and add oil to pan. Add garama masala and cumin and stir for 30 seconds. Add garlic, onion, and cauliflower plus a good pinch of salt and some pepper. Stir regularly until onions are soft – about 10 minutes. Add wine and cook down for a minute or two. Add stock, cover, and bring to a simmer. Cook until cauliflower is very tender, 15-20 minutes. Cool slightly and put through blender. Return to pot on low heat and whisk in yogurt. Taste and correct for seasoning. Serve topped with cilantro and pepper.

bigger photo of Indian-Spiced Cauliflower Soup

Thread in s0ups_on: http://community.livejournal.com/s0ups_on/11695.html

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This was a super double-plus good post. I love reading about other people's approach to cooking.
(FWIW, I'm much more of the improvisational type. I think it's why I'm not a very good baker.)

Also, the cauliflower recipe looks awesome! I might try this over the weekend.

Thanks! I wondered if anyone would actually slog through all that babbling.

I'm trying to be more improvisational. Flexibility is good, right? Given how nervous I was about getting 'regular' recipes right, I was too intimidated to try baking for a while since I heard that really required things to be precise.

Hope you like the cauliflower recipe. My favorite recipe for cauliflower is still Honey-Curry Roasted Cauliflower. :)

I'm not good at improvising either, but I find that the more you cook the more you recognize formulas so that it seems like you're improvising when actually you're just repeating a learned pattern. Beans with seasoned porks, citrus with poultry, that kind of thing. I can never come up with anything completely new on my own.

Somehow I doubt that at this point for you. But I'd be more than happy to be able to repeat previously learned patterns from memory. I guess it'd be like being able to perform a memorized piece of music :)

(Deleted comment)
Mmm...I've tried several of Alton Brown's recipes and they almost always make me really happy. Hope you like this one too.

I suck for not cooking. All sounds and looks good!

Yeah but you seem to have plenty of other options for food. One of the reasons I got into cooking was getting tired of the takeout options around here. (that and having a very enthusiastic partner in the kitchen who coaxed me into cooking)

Ask to try a slice of the duck bacon.

...I don't keep kosher, but I remain Intrigued.

Yes, definitely worth checking out at some point. I'm very bummed that they don't seem to do mail order.

Yum, I'll have to make this, garam masala is one of my favorite spices. I actually had it in my head when I went to the grocery store just now, but the cauliflower all looked questionable. I'll have to go to the farmer's market this weekend.

*grin* I hope you have a chance to try this out.

That looks tasty! I wish more Indian restaurants out here served soups.

When I started cooking, I followed recipes (mostly) to the word, too. I still do sometimes when I'm curious about a flavor profile I've never seen.

As for cutting heat in recipes, short of just adding more of anything (potato, beans, pieces of dishtowel...) to the recipe or serving it with something like rice to distribute the hot ingredient, anything that will help coat your tongue to protect it will help; the proteins in dairy, gloppy peanut butter, the cocoa butter in some grated dark choclate, etc. You can also try sweetening it up with molasses or honey.

Thanks for all the ideas on reducing the spiciness. I added honey to the cauliflower soup and that helped. Then drowning it with a bunch of quinoa helped too :)

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