The subtly sweet flavors of cauliflower, oysters and saffron blend seamlessly together to create an elegant and delicately flavored soup that’s remarkably quick and easy to make.
No cream or other thickening agents are used to create the light, but satisfying creamy texture, which is achieved by pureeing a whole head of tender-cooked cauliflower. If you think you’re too busy to cook, think again. This wonderful soup only takes about 30 minutes to make, most of which is unattended cooking time.
You may be tempted to skip the saffron – and you can, of course – but you’ll be missing out on a lot of flavor. While it’s true that saffron is relatively expensive, a little bit goes a long way. Why is saffron so costly? The most precious of all spices, brilliantly colored saffron threads are actually the tiny dried stigmas of a small, delicate flower, the saffron crocus. A single blossom produces only 3 stigmas per year, which can only be harvested by hand. Since it takes approximately 225,000 of these hand-picked stigmas to make a single pound, it’s easy to understand why saffron is the world’s most precious spice.
Saffron’s aroma is often described as honey-like with grassy notes, but as is typical with elusive flavors, words fall short. Like truffles, caviar and other highly-prized foods, the aroma and flavor of saffron must be experienced first-hand to be appreciated and understood.
Saffron cultivation goes back at least 3,000 years and its wild precursor was likely used even much earlier. An early form of saffron as we know it today most probably was cultivated by the Minoans in Bronze Age Crete where it was colorfully depicted in palace frescoes. The ancient Greek legend of Crocus and Smilax tells how Crocus was bewitched and transformed into the first saffron crocus by the nymph Smilax.
During the Middle Ages, saffron was a coveted and rare spice in England. Legend has it that, during the reign of Edward III, a pilgrim returning to the town of Walden from the Middle East brought a bulb of saffron hidden in a secret compartment in his walking staff. The bulb was cultivated and, in time, multiplied many times over. The town grew prosperous on the saffron trade and became known as “Saffron Walden.”
Today, most of the world’s saffron is cultivated in a belt stretching from Spain to India, with smaller amounts cultivated in many other regions, including the United States. But wherever it is grown, saffron is still painstakingly harvested by hand to produce the mysterious spice with an ancient history and captivating flavor.
Cauliflower & Oyster Soup with Saffron
- 1 medium cauliflower, about 1-1/2 to 2 pounds
- 1 cup water
- 2-1/2 cups milk
- salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 teaspoon saffron
- 8 – 10 oz shucked fresh oysters, with their liquor
- 2 tablespoons sliced fresh chives, for garnish
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, optional
Cut away the core of the cauliflower and break or cut into florets. Place the cauliflower florets into a large pot and add the water. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, then cover and reduce to low. Cook until very tender, about 20 minutes.
Drain away the water and transfer the cauliflower to a food processor. Add 1/2 cup of the milk and the saffron and puree until very smooth.
Return the puree to the pan and stir in the remaining 2 cups of milk. Heat the mixture gently over medium heat until it is very hot but not boiling. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Stir in the oysters and their liquor, cover and turn off the heat. Allow to stand for 3-5 minutes. The oysters will gently cook through from the residual heat.
Ladle the soup into warmed bowls, garnish with the chives, and swirl in a pat of sweet butter for extra richness, if desired. Serve immediately.
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