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High-heat roasting can transform cauliflower

Published: Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

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The first time I roasted a head of cauliflower was a pivotal food moment for me. It changed my vegetable eating life. Before that, I was able to eat one or two pieces of cauliflower, and even then only if they were smothered in cheese sauce. But once I learned how roasting dramatically changes the flavor of cauliflower, I could eat an entire head straight up. It's really that good.

I still remember watching the pale ivory cauliflower changing colors and emitting these dark, caramelized cabbage-y scents from the oven. I was skeptical, but patient. My patience paid off.

Even after making it dozens of times, it still amazes me that something as simple as high-heat roasting can transform this vegetable from something lackluster into something that you — quite literally — can't stop eating. So, I thought to myself, I wonder what would happen if I roasted cauliflower, then turned the intensely flavorful florets into soup?

The results? A silky, luxurious and ultimately satisfying soup that is simple. The key of course is the high-heat roasting of the cauliflower before pureeing it into a soup. High-heat roasting concentrates the sugars in the vegetable and gives it a depth and nuttiness that cannot be coaxed out of it any other way.

I lightly season the soup with salt, white pepper and fresh thyme. Chicken stock, or veggie stock if you prefer, and half-and-half thin it out to a soup-like consistency. I also serve the soup with a sprinkle of crisp country ham or apple wood smoked bacon to dress it up. Other than those few supporting ingredients, it is the roasted cauliflower that steals the show.

This rich and delicious soup is deceptively healthful and can be made even more so by using milk instead of half-and-half. The best news is that it is really three recipes in one! You can serve the roasted cauliflower on its own, make the soup as the recipe states, or create a "mash" or puree by decreasing the amount of liquid by half when pureeing (serve as a substitute for mashed potatoes).

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ROASTED CAULIFLOWER SOUP WITH BACON AND THYME

Start to finish: 1 1/2 hours (30 minutes active)

Servings: 8

2 heads cauliflower (about 4 1/2 pounds total)

1/4 cup olive oil

Kosher salt

1 quart chicken broth (or more for a thinner soup), divided

1 pint half-and-half

2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme, plus 8 sprigs to garnish

Pinch of white pepper

10 slices apple wood smoked bacon (or 3 slices country ham), minced and cooked

Heat the oven to 400 F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with cooking parchment, or with foil lightly misted with cooking spray.

Use a paring knife to carefully cut out and discard the core of each head of cauliflower, then cut the heads into large florets. Place the florets in a large bowl and drizzle with the olive oil. Toss to coat evenly. Sprinkle with about 2 teaspoons of salt, tossing to coat.

Arrange the florets in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet. Roast for 30 minutes, then use tongs to flip the florets, then roast for another 30 minutes, or until the florets are deeply caramelized and golden.

Transfer the florets to a blender and add 2 cups of the broth. Puree, then add the half-and-half and puree for another 3 minutes, or until completely smooth. The puree should be very thick. With the blender running, add the remaining broth, the thyme and white pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings.

The soup can be transferred to a saucepan and gently heated, or refrigerated overnight before reheating and serving. The flavor is best when it is allowed to rest overnight.

When ready to serve, garnish each bowl with a bit of cooked bacon and a sprig of fresh thyme.

Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories; 240 calories from fat (71 percent of total calories); 26 g fat (9 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 40 mg cholesterol; 16 g carbohydrate; 5 g fiber; 6 g sugar; 11 g protein; 1100 mg sodium.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Elizabeth Karmel is a grilling and Southern foods expert and executive chef at Hill Country Barbecue Market restaurants in New York and Washington, as well as Hill Country Chicken in New York. She is the author of three cookbooks, including "Soaked, Slathered and Seasoned."

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