A 'Top Chef' Cooks Up A Warming Winter Soup Supermarket produce shelves can be bleak in December, but the humble cauliflower is in season. Top Chef finalist Carla Hall shares her recipe for a cream of cauliflower soup to warm the winter nights.
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A 'Top Chef' Cooks Up A Warming Winter Soup

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A 'Top Chef' Cooks Up A Warming Winter Soup

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Right before Christmas, I met up with Carla Hall at a safeway Supermarket here in Washington, D.C. Carla is a well-known caterer in this area, but you might know her better as a finalist from season five of the TV show "Top Chef." And we gave Carla Hall a challenge. We wanted her to make something using a seasonal vegetable, and it had to include ingredients that could be found in just about any supermarket, and it had to be something easy enough to make for dinner - say, after work.

And so what did she come up with?

Ms. CARLA HALL (Chef-Owner, Alchemy Caterers; Finalist, "Top Chef"): I'm going to make a cream of cauliflower soup.

RAZ: Cream of cauliflower soup?

Ms. HALL: Yes.

RAZ: Okay. Why are you making cream of cauliflower soup?

Ms. HALL: For one, I love pureed soups. Two: cauliflower's in season, and we always think of it being around because we have the...

RAZ: It's always around.

Ms. HALL: ...because it's always around. But it's actually grown at this time of the year, and local farmers are growing it.

RAZ: Carla says you want to look for a nice, bright-white cauliflower without any black splotches. The rest is pretty easy - a carton of chicken stock, some leeks, garlic, fresh thyme, butter, cream, and a few staples from the pantry like salt and flour. Now, don't worry if you missed that. All of this is at our Web site, npr.org.

Anyway, we spent about $21.80, and that will make enough soup for about 10 people.

(Soundbite of cutting)

RAZ: I asked to be Carla's sous chef, so back in her kitchen, she sharpened a santoku knife for me.

(Soundbite of sharpening)

RAZ: All right.

And put me to work on the leeks.

Ms. HALL: So, we're going to get - I - while you're doing the leeks, I'll get up on the cauliflower. I like that little squeaky sound. You know, when they're really fresh, they squeak.

RAZ: Yeah.

(Soundbite of cutting)

Ms. HALL: Oh, you know, I love when you do cauliflower like this, you would just cut it straight down.

RAZ: Oh, that's beautiful.

Ms. HALL: And then you can grill them.

RAZ: Oh, yeah.

Ms. HALL: Oh, it's so yummy.

RAZ: It's like a cross-section.

Ms. HALL: Why don't I do that for - I know.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: It's like the heart of the cauliflower.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: All right. We're looking good. So, you have your leeks all cut up and they're washing. You're agitating them in the bowl.

RAZ: Now, I do a lot of cooking with leeks, but here's a trick I didn't know. Carla Hall says don't wash them first. Chop them up, and then throw the chopped bits into a bowl of room-temperature water, swish them around a bit, and watch as the sand and grit sink to the bottom of the bowl. The clean, chopped pieces of leek float right to the top.

(Soundbite of swishing)

RAZ: Meanwhile, back on the stove...

Ms. HALL: We're basically making a roux. But we're going to cook...

RAZ: Which is butter and flour.

Ms. HALL: Butter and flour. But we're going to cook the leeks in the butter, and then we'll sprinkle our flour over and then just kind of do it in a - the same step.

RAZ: OK.

Ms. HALL: OK? And if you really think about this soup, it's - think of it like a potato leek, you know, cauliflower leek. I know.

RAZ: Like a warm vichyssoise, right?

Ms. HALL: Yes, yes.

RAZ: The leeks bubble in about half a cup of butter over low heat. You want to hear them sing but not brown - just get them soft - and you want to add a clove or two of minced garlic.

Ms. HALL: So, I would like for you to just sprinkle a little bit of salt in the leeks now. My whole theory about that is you don't, if you salt in stages, you don't end up oversalting at the end.

RAZ: As the leeks cook down, Carla sprinkles a bit of flour on them. This will help thicken the soup later.

Ms. HALL: This smells really good. OK. So, you know, we don't want to rush anything.

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: Good soup, good food takes time. And even though this soup will be done in about 30, 35 minutes - OK, just call it 40 - we need to take all that time. So, they're looking good. That butter's frothy and yummy. Mmm.

RAZ: Now, let me ask you this question: I know you're a fancy, famous chef and all - how much do you cook at home?

Ms. HALL: Not too much. My husband cooks.

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: I lay on the couch while he's cooking. 'Cause when I get home, I'm really...

RAZ: You're done.

Ms. HALL: Yeah, I'm done. So, I want to add in our cauliflower that's been chopped, yeah?

RAZ: Yeah.

Ms. HALL: And all the little bits that fall on the cutting board are going to go right into the soup. As you are making the soup, be present and let the process be a little organic and not be so rigid with the recipe because you have to feel it. For instance, if I'm doing this soup in season, the cauliflower's in season, it's going to taste totally differently than it would if it's not in season.

(Soundbite of banging)

Ms. HALL: You have to honor the produce. Maybe you have to add something else in it. So, I think people need to think about that when they're cooking.

RAZ: And so basically, I mean, this soup at its core, I mean, this soup is just cauliflower, leeks - and it could be olive oil and some chicken stock?

Ms. HALL: Exactly.

RAZ: I mean, you wouldn't have to add cream or butter or flour if you didn't want to?

Ms. HALL: Nope, nope.

RAZ: That just makes it taste better.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HALL: It does. But it looks so good. Oh, my God, I'm so excited. I can't wait.

RAZ: All right. It looks like the soup's ready, Carla. I think - and we're starving.

Ms. HALL: Right, yeah.

RAZ: Once the cauliflower chunks are nice and soft, Carla ladles everything into a blender and pulses it to a silky smooth texture.

(Soundbite of blender)

RAZ: Then it's time for lunch.

That's delicious.

Ms. HALL: You like it?

RAZ: This tastes like a fire - a warm fire inside on the sofa, wearing a Snuggie.

Ms. HALL: Right, right. I want one of those.

RAZ: Wear your Snuggie and eat this soup, and winter will be perfect.

Ms. HALL: Yeah.

RAZ: Carla Hall is chef-owner of Alchemy Caterers in Silver Spring, Maryland, and she was a finalist on season five of "Top Chef." You can find the recipe for Carla's cauliflower soup at our Web site, npr.org.

Carla Hall, thank you so much.

Ms. HALL: Thank you. It was my pleasure.

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