I grew up in Portland, OR, at a time when it wasn’t quite as cool or slick as it is now. Back in those days, Balony Joe’s still fed the homeless off the Burnside Bridge, thrift stores weren’t particularly hip and the best place in town for a quick lunchtime cup of soup was Winchell’s Donuts (sadly, most of the old Winchell’s locations have been turned into Starbucks in recent years).
As an occasional treat on those drizzly Portland Saturdays, my mom would take my sister and me to the Winchell’s that used to be on 82nd Avenue in SE Portland. It was located between the now-defunct Bargain Station thrift store (razed to make way for a Walmart) and Value Village (happily, still there). We’d each order the $2.49 lunch special, which consisted of a cup of soup, a drink and a donut for dessert (a rare indulgence).
It’s such a cozy memory, sitting on battered stools along the counter, spooning cream of potato soup out of a thick, contoured china cup and watching the rain pattern down the side windows of the restaurant. Since then, I’ve associated sturdy, creamy soups with rainy days and deep comfort.
Monday, feeling the need for a little homey-ness, I made a huge batch of cauliflower soup that was inspired by those Winchell’s lunches (I couldn’t, however, justify a full-on homage, as the soups we ate back in those days were heart-stoppingly heavy). Mine was full of vegetables (cauliflower, leeks and carrot) simmered in home canned chicken stock (learning to can homemade chicken stock in the pressure canner has revolutionized my pantry) and enriched with a quick, cheddar-y white sauce.
We’ve been eating this soup all week, garnishing the bowls with some browned ham cubes or just a handful of pretzel twists. As I write this, there’s just enough left for one final bowl. I’ve got my sights set on having it tomorrow for lunch, unless Scott gets to it before I do.
Think of this as more of a soup method than a recipe and play around with it. Swap broccoli in for the cauliflower. No leeks? Use onions instead. Want a pure white soup? Skip the carrots (although they do lend a nice sweetness). Want to make it vegetarian? By all means, use veggie stock in place of the chicken. Have a spicy-loving palate? Add a dash of cayenne pepper. You get the picture.
Cauliflower Soup with Leeks, Carrots and Cheddar
- 2 heads cauliflower roughly chopped
- 1 large carrot diced
- 2 leeks well-washed and sliced
- 1 tablespoon butter
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- ½ cup white wine
- 2 quarts chicken or vegetable stock
- 7-8 grinds of black pepper
- 2 teaspoons kosher salt
For the Cheesy Sauce
- 3 tablespoons butter
- 3 heaping tablespoons flour
- 3 cups milk
- 1 ½ cups grated cheddar cheese
- 1 8- ounce block of cream cheese
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
- 3-4 grinds black pepper
- In a large soup pot (I used my 7 1/2 quart Le Creuset), saute the chopped cauliflower, carrots and leeks in the butter and olive oil. Allow them to soften and brown for 7-8 minutes over fairly high heat. When the bottom of the pan begins to brown, deglaze the pan with the white wine (if you don’t want to use white wine, feel free to skip it and head straight to the stock). Use a flat wooden spatula to scrape any brown bits off the bottom of the pot. Add the chicken stock, reduce the heat to medium, apply a lid and allow the veggies to simmer for approximately ten minutes (the larger your veggie chunks were, the longer you’ll want them to simmer).
- In a medium saucepan, begin the white sauce by melting the butter over medium-high heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter and use a whisk to work it together. Let it brown up a bit. When it begins to develop a nice toasted color, pour in a couple of tablespoons of milk and whisk it in to incorporate. Add the milk bit by bit, whisking to incorporate after each pour, until all the milk is worked in (if you pour in all the milk at once, you’ll get lumps).
- You should have a white sauce that is of moderate thickness. Add your grated cheese and stir until it’s melted in. Now add the cubed cream cheese (I realize that this is sort of a trashy addition, but believe me, it makes it really yummy). Finally, add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Once the sauce is smooth, turn the heat down to it’s lowest setting and return your attention to your pot of veggies.
- By now, your cauliflower, carrots and leeks should be pretty soft. Now it’s time to puree. I like to use an immersion blender, because you don’t have to dirty another vessel and it doesn’t make the soup too smooth (I like my soup to have some texture). If you don’t have an immersion blender, you can use a blender, food processor or food mill. Take care when using a blender or food processor though. Work in small batches and use a folded kitchen towel to cover the lid to prevent splatter.
- Once the soup is smooth-ish, pour in the cheesy sauce. Carefully stir to incorporate it. Taste and adjust seasonings. Unless you used a salty cheese, it will probably want a bit more salt.
- All that’s left to do is have a nice, warming dinner (with plenty of leftovers that you can store in jars and stash in the fridge).