Falling into Soup

Among my mind’s snapshots of Italy, a favorite country, are rows of cauliflower lined up at every market – purple, green, white, lavender. A beautiful sight they are, and the fodder for many a recipe.

I covered courts for the old States-Item and frequently stopped at a small restaurant, long-closed, a few doors away from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeal building downtown. The magnet was a cauliflower soup, simple but so tasty that I became a regular and eventually devised my own recipe to match it.

Fall is the time for soups, when a chill finally reaches the air and the most delicious and healthful vegetables are in season. Cauliflower, broccoli, greens, pumpkin and butternut and acorn squash are ingredients for tempting soups.

Interchangeable for a thick and filling soup are pumpkin and butternut squash. Like many of the fall vegetables, they’re brimming with nutrition. They carry strong flavors, a perfect match for a light chicken broth, seared onions and a touch of cream. Food writers usually run recipes for gumbo z’erbes (greens gumbo) during Lent, especially Good Friday when meat is taboo. I prefer to make it in the fall when more greens are available and a bit of pork seasoning can be thrown into the pot. At this time of year, the markets are filled with collards, turnip greens and mustard greens. The number of greens is supposed to indicate the number of friends you’ll make in the coming year. The tradition is seven or nine greens, and the number must be odd. An even number is considered bad luck.

When I eat greens, I must have cornbread. I like a moist version with chopped jalapeños and grated sharp cheddar cheese. My choice of sides for cauliflower or pumpkin soup is hot French bread; it’s great for dipping.

Italian-style Cauliflower Soup

1 head cauliflower
2 Tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon Italian seasoning
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 ounces spaghetti, broken
nto thirds
¼ cup chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/3 cup shredded Parmesan cheese, plus extra for garnish
Stem and trim cauliflower and cut into small pieces.

In a medium-large pot, heat olive oil and sauté onions and celery until transparent. Add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add stock, cauliflower and seasonings, cover and simmer until cauliflower is almost cooked but still slightly firm. Add spaghetti and cook until al dente. Remove from heat and stir in parsley and 1/3-cup Parmesan.

Serve hot with a sprinkle of Parmesan on each bowl. Serves 4 to 6

Pumpkin Soup

4 cups pumpkin, fresh cooked or canned
2 Tablespoons butter
1 onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 bunch green onions, chopped, white and green parts divided
2 cloves garlic, chopped
5 cups chicken broth
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup Half & Half
Roasted pumpkin seeds for garnish, optional
Sour cream, optional

If using fresh pumpkin, cut pumpkin in half from top to bottom. Clean out seeds and set aside 1 cup of cleaned seeds. Place pumpkin halves cut side down on a baking sheet and roast in a 350-degree oven until a knife slips through easily. When cool enough to handle, spoon out cooked pumpkin, measure 4 cups and freeze any leftover for other uses.

Melt butter in a large pot and sauté onion, bell pepper and white part of green onions. When transparent, add garlic and sauté 1 minute more. Add pumpkin, chicken broth and spices, and simmer for 30 minutes. Adjust seasonings and purée using a hand blender, or remove in batches to a blender to purée. Add Half & Half.

Serve hot with pumpkin seeds as garnish, if desired. Or, top with a dollop of sour cream and green onion tops.

To roast pumpkin seeds, rinse 1 cup seeds in a colander until clean. Place in 2 cups of water with 2 Tablespoons salt and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain and place in a single layer on baking sheet brushed with olive oil and toss to coat. Bake until brown, about 10 to 15 minutes, depending on size of seeds. Halfway through baking, stir and return to a single layer. Serves 4 to 6

Gumbo Z’herbes

The following recipe is from my recently published cookbook, Gumbo, a Savor the South cookbook from the University of North Carolina Press.

1 small ham bone or ½ pound smoked ham cubes or smoked sausage
1 pint shucked oysters with their liquor
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
3 green onions, chopped
3 stalks celery, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ teaspoon Creole seasoning
3 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 Tablespoon sugar
2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped mustard greens
2 cups cleaned and roughly chopped turnip greens
4 cups cleaned and roughly chopped collard greens
4 cups spinach
1 bunch Italian flat-leaf parsley
½ small cabbage, chopped or shredded
2 cups endive, torn in pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Cooked long-grain white rice, for serving
If using a ham bone, simmer it in a large pot in 2 quarts of water, covered, for 2 hours or until the meat is about to fall off the bone. When cool enough to handle, remove meat from bone and set aside. Discard bone and save stock. You will need about 7 cups of stock.

Strain oysters, reserving their liquor, and check for shell fragments. You should have about ½ cup liquor.

In a very large, heavy pot, combine the oil and flour and stir over high heat until the roux starts to brown. Reduce the heat to medium, stirring constantly, until the roux becomes the color of milk chocolate. Immediately add the onions and simmer until caramelized. Add celery and garlic and simmer a minute more.

Stir in the reserved ham stock, oyster liquor (about ½ cup), Creole seasoning, bay leaves, thyme, sugar, reserved ham or ham cubes and greens and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, covered, for about 1 hour. Add the oysters and cook until they curl, about 1 minute. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Turn off the heat and remove the bay leaves.

Serve in soup bowls over the rice. Serves 8




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