Recipe: Minestra di Cavolfiore with Saffron and Fennel
Whenever I see, taste, or even hear about cauliflower soup, it’s always a creamy purée. There’s nothing wrong with that, and smooth, creamy soups can be quite voluptuous, but the style is essentially French, isn’t it? In any case, it’s not what I grew up with. My family made a Southern Italian soup, a minestra, with pieces of cauliflower or broccoli, sometimes string beans or cubes of potato, tomatoes, often hot chilies, and always some type of small soup pasta. I miss that kind of simple summer soup. Seems like the only place you can find it is at home-cooked dinners where it’s always awful and always has the same boiled, crappy smell and identical taste no matter what kinds of vegetables they’ve thrown into it. I think “thrown” is the key word here. It’s easy to duplicate that odd dinner taste if you just add vegetables to boiling liquid without sautéing them a little first. Then add a couple of vegetable cubes, and you’ve got it made. I beg you, don’t do it. Cauliflower in particular needs loving care to bring out its beautiful, delicate flavor.
This cauliflower soup I’m offering here is a minestra, not an all-out, slow cooked minestrone. I’ve chosen cauliflower and summer tomatoes, given them a sauté, and then quickly cooked them on high heat in a mix of light broth and water, finishing with fresh herbs and a sprinkling of grating cheese. I’ve added saffron, which I love with cauliflower, possibly because I’ve eaten this combination so many times in Indian dishes, but I’ve taken it in an Italian direction by including fennel, creating a purely Mediterranean flavor.
Minestra di Cavolfiore with Saffron and Fennel
(Serves 4 as a lunch or light supper)
Extra-virgin olive oil
½ cup diced pancetta
1 medium cauliflower, cut into small florets
A generous pinch of sugar
1 summer onion, diced
2 fresh summer garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 fresh bay leaf
1 fresh red chili, seeded and minced
A small palmful of fennel seeds, ground to a powder
2 medium-size round summer tomatoes, skinned and cut into small dice
1 quart light chicken broth, preferably homemade
About 20 threads of saffron, dried, if moist, and then ground
¼ pound ditalini pasta, cooked al dente
A dozen tarragon sprigs, leaves very lightly chopped
A chunk of grana Padano cheese
In a big soup pot, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium flame. Add the pancetta, and let it get crisp. Add the cauliflower, the sugar, and the onion, and sauté until the cauliflower is well coated with oil and the onion is fragrant, about 4 minutes. This is an important step for bringing out flavor in the cauliflower, so you don’t get that dreadful boiled vegetable flavor I spoke about. Add the garlic, the bay leaf, the chili, and the fennel seed, and sauté a minute longer to release those flavors. Add the tomato and some salt, and cook until the tomatoes give off juice, about 4 minutes. Add the chicken broth and a cup of water, and bring the soup to a boil. Add a little hot water to the saffron so it can open up, and then add this to the soup pot. Cook, uncovered, at a lively bubble until the cauliflower is tender, about 12 minutes or so. Add the ditalini, stirring it in, adding a little hot water if it gets too thick. Check for seasoning. Add the tarragon. Serve hot, topped with grated grana Padano.