A cauliflower stem is not celebrated like the floral crown it supports. Despite having the same flavor as the florets, and similar nutritional value, the less-charismatic stem is but a lowly pedestal for the trophy, with fewer pathways to glory. But you only need one, and I have found it: in a bowl of chilled vichyssoise, in place of potato.
I'm hardly a traditionalist in the kitchen, but there are some recipes, for some dishes, with which I don’t mess. I thought vichyssoise was one of them until I brought home a cauliflower with a stem that was so big it deserved special attention, and got to thinking.
I remember reading, in "Kitchen Confidential," about how a bowl of vichyssoise bewitched Anthony Bourdain and drew him into the world of food. Smooth and simple, served cold with a few flecks of black pepper, vichyssoise is a quietly spellbinding assemblage of flavors.
What Bourdain tasted was likely similar to what Julia Child taught, which was based on the same recipe the French military used during the war to cook vichyssoise for 100 men. The recipe contains a notable lack of herbs, but is flavored by two or three members of the onion family, including leeks, onions, sometimes garlic, and garnished with chives. Quirky rules like this give vichyssoise its classic smooth, creamy and earthy feel. Swapping the potatoes for cauliflower would surely be frowned upon by the elders, but the more I thought about my cauliflower stem, the more I knew I had to do it.
The only question was whether I should add cauliflower stem to the vichyssoise, or simply replace the potato with cauliflower stem. It was a question I could only answer with side-by-side trials: with and without potato, with and without cauliflower.
The result was lopsided. Vichyssoise is better with cauliflower and without potato. Full stop. It's thinner and lighter, with a delicate sweetness.
Most cauliflower stems are not large enough to make a batch of vichyssoise, so you have to augment as necessary with florets. But in service of such savory elegance, that’s hardly a sacrifice.
Cauliflower vichyssoise is so intrinsically creamy, thanks to the cauliflower, that you can even get away with skipping, or at the very least reducing, the actual cream. I know, I know. Julia and Anthony are about ready to take me out back and shoot me. But with less or no added cream, the flavors of the individual components of this chilled soup are more vivid, and more themselves. Just leeks and cauliflower without their makeup. But if you skip the butter I will personally disown you.
And out of respect to the real purists, and to the value of tradition, I should try to refrain from calling my potato-free dish "vichyssoise." But I can't do anything about the fact that my cauliflower vichyssoise is better than the classic that spawned it. Adding potato to this velvety elegance, in my estimation, weakens the outcome.
The version with both potato and cauliflower is relatively bland and thick to the point of being sluggish, especially compared to the ethereal elegance that the cauliflower version brings to the table. That potato-free rendition is like a new expensive bicycle, just as sturdy as the old one but made with lighter materials, fortified with cauliflower fiber instead of potato starch.
The cauliflower outworks the potato in terms of flavor too, adding vegetal complexity without making it taste any less vichyssoise-esque. It also adds an unexpected creaminess that is completely distinct from the potato-y thickness of the original. This creaminess is so creamy that there is no need for cream, and each time I make cauliflower vichyssoise I use less.
Finally, I did a side-by-side, which confirmed my blasphemous notion that vichyssoise — or whatever we are calling it these days — is better with cauliflower, and without cream or potatoes.
Don’t shoot the messenger.
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Be careful, when making this recipe, of tasters who will steal a bite from the pan while it’s cooking or cooling. They will tell you it tastes delicious chunky, as-is. They will tell you it’s delicious warm. This is when you lecture them on the importance of tradition. In this case, you would be right.
Makes 8 one cup servings
6 cups chopped leeks (white and light green parts)
6 cups chopped cauliflower stems (supplemented with crowns, as necessary)
1 stick (4 oz) butter
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 small onion
3 cloves garlic
1-2 teaspoons crushed black pepper, depending on taste. (It should taste faintly to mildly of pepper, but not peppery.)
1 teaspoon salt
4 cups chicken stock (or veggie stock)
½ cup heavy cream (Or not. Or to taste, a little at a time.)
Chives, minced, for garnish
Sauté the leeks, cauliflower, garlic and onion in the butter and olive oil with salt and pepper. When the onions and leeks are softened and translucent, add the water or stock. Simmer for 20 minutes, adjust seasonings. Let cool to room temperature. Add the chunks and broth to the blender and make it silky smooth. Stir in the cream, if you must, and put the finished vichyssoise-esque in the fridge to chill. Garnish with minced chives and serve.