I’m a great fan of Nigel Slater so whenever he comes up with an unexpected combination, I know it will be a winner. Despite the poor growing season for most vegetables, cauliflower has been abundant and flavorful this year. Though the markets were full of the big blowsy ones, labeled “Jersey Fresh,” I tend to prefer the smaller ones from our CSA and the farmers’ markets. A local organic farm is still delivering beautiful specimens to our local all-organic produce store. They sit there among the turnips, on ice, pretty and perfect. Cauliflower can be tame, insipid even, so you need to obtain a small, flavorful head and cook it to bring out the cabbage-like essence. It is, after all, a member of the Brassica family.
For my previous cauliflower soup, I roasted the vegetables (cauliflower and leeks) to deepen the flavor. Here, I bring it in from the outside, from rendered bacon, onion and garlic and, finally, from toasted hazelnuts. Slater, writing in The Guardian, claims this is a Polish recipe, but if he had said it was Austrian, I would have said “sure.” I pureed the hazelnuts with the soup instead of adding them afterward, since I wanted them to contribute to the texture. I omitted the bay leaf he called for during the braising stage since I didn’t have one on hand. That was probably a good thing. I tried a few herb combinations (dried rubbed sage, and then a dried rosemary-sage-garlic rub that I made from my garden) and found any would overwhelm the soup, which was great by itself as a showcase for cauliflower. I opted for crusty little croutons with the mixed herb rub; their crispy texture played well against the toasted nuts.
Cauliflower Soup with Bacon and Hazelnuts adapted from Nigel Slater
1 medium large or 2 small heads cauliflower
3 slices high quality smoked bacon (I used one referred to as Black Forest)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large or 2 small garlic cloves, sliced
4 c chicken stock, preferably homemade
2 tbsp peeled hazelnuts, (see below for peeling instructions)
Cut the cauliflower into florets, coarsely chopping the stems and tender parts of the core.
Cut the bacon into 1-inch pieces and render it in a large saucepan over medium heat until crispy. (You can remove the bacon now and add it back later as I did, or leave it in the pan.)
Add the onion and cook slowly, not letting it brown. Add the garlic and the chopped cauliflower stems and let them cook slowly for a few minutes. Add a little stock and braise the stems until nearly tender. Add the remaining stock and the cauliflower florets and simmer until the entire mixture is tender, about 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, prepare the hazelnuts. If they are not peeled, place them in pan in a 300-degree oven for about 5 minutes, remove them and rub them in a tea towel to loosen the skins. Place them in a small sauté pan over medium heat and toss them until light brown. Sprinkle with a little oil and salt, and set aside. Chop them if you’re pureeing the soup using an immersion blender.
When the soup is cooked, reserve a few florets and puree the rest, along with the nuts and bacon, in a food processor. Serve hot.