The book is called "The Art of Simple Food" by Alice Waters. The tag-line of the book reads "Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution" and it is indeed a revolution that Alice Waters is credited with bringing about. A movement away from processed and canned (in more ways than one) food that was (is?) so heavily marketed in the country, and towards appreciating food for what it is really is- a joy, not a burden. To see an example of Waters' work, take a look at the Edible Schoolyard project in a school in Berkeley, California, where the school's curriculum revolves around working in the school garden; learning the sensory joys of cooking and gardening; tasting real food from an early age.
The back cover of the book lists nine fundamental guidelines that the book is based on. Simple statements like "Cook together", "Eat together" and "Remember food is precious" that seem so fundamental, but unfortunately, are not that basic in our lives any more. I read all those lines, and thought to myself: as a child growing up in middle class India, most of these principles were very much a part of our lives. It is good to be reminded of them from time to time.
What I really love about this book is that it does not teach you to cook ABC or XYZ so much as it simply teaches you to cook. Waters is a patient and methodical teacher, laying the foundation of cooking in the first part of the book and devoting the second half of the book to a bounty of recipes for every course of the meal. For instance, the section of cake elaborates on the principles underlying the conversion of flour, eggs, butter and sugar into an airy dessert, then gives a versatile cake recipe and suggestions for turning it into a layer cake, a sheet cake, cupcakes etc. Each recipe has ideas for variations, reinforcing the fact that once you know the technique and principles, you hardly even need a recipe to cook simple meals. Over a few years of regular cooking, I am learning principles of Indian cooking to some extent, but a cookbook such as this one is wonderful for learning some classic "Western" recipes. I often find myself flipping through voluminous cookbooks, gazing at lovely photographs but barely coming across even one recipe that I really want to try. This one does not have a single photograph of a prepared dish (some lovely ink illustrations are certainly found here) but I found a dozen recipes that I am very eager to try.
The first recipe I tried from this book is Spicy Cauliflower Soup. This is one versatile vegetable that seems to find its way into my shopping bag nearly every week. In this home, cauliflower seems to be cooked repetitively in a few favorite ways- some naughty, some nice, and then, the delicious but predictable roasted cauliflower. I have been meaning to try other avatars of this cruciferous beauty, and this soup jumped up as an unusual (for me) way of cooking it. Besides, I spotted it on the menu of Waters' Chez Panisse Cafe- it is very unlikely that I will be eating there any time soon, so here is my chance to taste a little bit of that place virtually.
This simple soup is jazzed up with familiar spices: the toasted coriander and cumin (I used a mortar and pestle to crack the spices) add a burst of flavor and texture. Turmeric adds a subtle tinge and warmth to the soup. The soup calls for any combination of broth and water. I never have vegetable broth on hand, and don't usually get around to making my own (don't use it often enough, basically). I used to just substitute water in recipes that called for stock, but have recently started using a stock base that I really like. It is a brand called "Better Than Bouillon" and they have several vegetarian bases. I must say the stock adds to the depth of flavor in this soup.
Spicy Cauliflower Soup
1 medium head of cauliflower, trimmed and florets coarsely chopped
1 onion, peeled and cubed
1 carrot, peeled and cubed
2 T olive oil
1 t cracked roasted coriander seeds
1 t cracked roasted cumin seeds
1/2 t turmeric
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 C chopped cilantro
3 cups stock (see note above)
2 cups water
juice of 1/2 lemon
1. In a heavy pot, heat the olive oil and add onion, carrot, coriander, cumin, turmeric, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper to taste.
2. Cook on medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables are very soft and the spices are toasted and fragrant.
3. Add the cilantro and cauliflower florets and stir for a minute more.
4. Add stock and water, bring to a boil, and then simmer, covered, until the cauliflower is tender. This took me about 15 minutes or so.
5. Use a blender (I use a stick blender) to partially blend the soup to a puree. If you prefer a coarser stew, just mash the florets with a wooden spoon and skip the blender. Stir in the lemon juice.
I served the soup with a delicious parmesan-crusted khakra-esque flatbread cracker. A crunchy accompaniment like crackers or croutons would go beautifully with this soup. Alice Waters suggests a garnish of yogurt, chopped mint and lime juice for each serving. I had no yogurt or mint on hand when I made this soup, but won't be skipping these delightful garnishes the next time I make this. I'm glad to have found yet another flavorful way to serve a beloved vegetable!
A hearty soup like this one is the perfect antidote to long dark winter evenings.
For more tips on staying active and cheerful through this season, check out my November Daily Tiffin column: Brightening the Winter Blues.