For a long time C had a habit of bringing me back a cookbook whenever he had a conference in what might conceivably be called a ‘food’ city.   Usually he would have a fabulous meal at a local restaurant and then, if the restaurant had a cookbook, he would kindly bring one back for me.  Once he returned home, he would inevitably recount his wonderful meal and I would attempt to control my food jealously.  I suppose he thought that giving me cookbooks from these restaurants would alleviate some of this jealously, but in truth it only made it worse.  And when he came home from New Orleans a few years back with a cookbook from Commander’s Palace, I knew I would just have to tag along at his next trip to the city, because it was clear that this restaurant was not to be missed.

Long story short – I did accompany C on his next trip to New Orleans and we had a fabulous meal at Commander’s Palace – it was how we celebrated our move to Nashville.  And once I had experienced that wonderful restaurant – and all the wonderful foods they prepare there – I realized I was ready to fully explore my Commander’s Palace cookbook.   Before I explored too long though, I found a recipe that would go on to become one of my favorite comfort foods – Cauliflower and Brie Soup.

I’ve never been a big cauliflower fan – I always found it sort of bland.  But in this soup,  when it’s combined with onions, celery and garlic, it has a wonderful savory sweetness.  And the addition of brie – well that is pure genius.  Some of the brie melts seamlessly into the soup, some stays in a semi-solid state and then proceeds to melt in your mouth.  The brie is a perfect addition to a soup that is mainly vegetables.

Once you add some heavy cream – or half and half if you’re watching calories – the finished soup is creamy beyond belief.  The fact that it’s also savory and has a hint of sweetness is all part of why this is one of my favorite soups.  There really is nothing better on a cold, rainy autumn day.  And every time I eat it I think of New Orleans and Commander’s Palace  – and mentally plan my next trip.

Cauliflower and Brie Soup

From Commander’s Kitchen by Ti Adelaide Martin and James Shannon

Ingredients:

2 heads of cauliflower cleaned and trimmed

10 T. butter

2 medium onions, peeled and diced

1 head of garlic, cloves peeled

1 medium bunch of celery, diced

Kosher salt and pepper

1 1/2 quarts chicken stock

2 T.  AP flour

8 ounces Brie Cheese, cut into a medium dice

1/4 c. heavy cream

Directions:

Clean the cauliflower by removing the leaves, coring, and cutting into large florets.

Melt 8 T. of butter in a large soup pot.  Add the onion, garlic and celery, cover and cook over medium heat to “sweat”, stirring occasionally until they are tender, about 5 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Stir in cauliflower, cover and cook for 5 -7 minutes.

Combine the cauliflower and stock and puree with a hand mixer, a blender or food processor.  Melt the remaining 2 T. butter in a small saucepan over medium heat stirring constantly and add the flour.  Cook until the roux smells nutty and is the consistency of wet sand.  Do not brown it.  Whisk into the soup and bring to a simmer.

Add the brie, a few pieces at a time, and blend until the cheese has melted into the soup.  Add the cream and adjust the seasoning to taste.

Kidney Beans

How did my mother do it? She managed to prepare a well-balanced dinner for my father, four siblings, and me every night of the week. She had all necessary ingredients on hand, everything arrived on the table at the same time, and she only went to the grocery store once a week. She made it appear effortless. Meanwhile, I go to four different grocery stores and the farmers’ market forty-eight times a week and I still never seem to have all the ingredients I need.

Cooking Uptown Spice Rub

Enter Susan Spicer. I couldn’t resist adding her cookbook, Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans, to my already overcrowded library of cookbooks. I anticipated an endless array of weekend-only dishes requiring hours of prep and even longer cooking times. Rather, what I found was a book laden with approachable recipes within the reach of any home cook.

Corn, peppers, and onions

We began with this particular recipe for no other reason than it was featured in The Splendid Table’s Weeknight Kitchen newsletter. I wasn’t sure what to expect from such humble ingredients and only a half hour of cooking time.

Thirty minutes and one can of kidney beans later, we were basking before the glow of a meal fit for a four star restaurant. The dish was hearty, healthy, and very fresh — a perfect dinner for hot Southern evenings. It is rare to have repeats around our house, but Ms. Spicer’s “Cajun-style” chicken is certain to become a regular. Its ease and flavor make me feel as accomplished in the kitchen as my mother.

Corn, onions, and peppers

A note on the spice rub: the recipe calls for a combination of cayenne and black pepper. I happened to have on hand a blackened seasoning blend from a fantastic store here in Charlotte called Cooking Uptown. The store is a true treasure for any cook. It easily rivals big chain stores like Sur La Table and Williams-Sonoma. If you’re a resident or just passing through, be sure to check out Cooking Uptown.

Before I sign off, I would be remiss if I failed to say that S and I agreed that the next time we make this (soon, no doubt), we will add a fresh chopped jalapeno at the end for a little extra heat. You can never go wrong with a bit more spice. Enjoy!

Cajun-Style Chicken with Maque Choux

“Cajun-Style” Chicken Breast with Chili Bean Maque Choux

Excerpted from Crescent City Cooking: Unforgettable Recipes from Susan Spicer’s New Orleans

Makes 4 servings
Prep Time: About 30 minutes

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 6 ounces each)
1 tablesppon olive or other vegetable oil, plus 1-2 tablespoons veg. oil for sauteing
2 tablespoons Creole or whole-grain mustard
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon each black and cayenne pepper
2 tablespoons chopped scallion

Maque Choux
2 ears sweet white or yellow corn, shucked and silk removed, or 1-1/2 cups frozen corn kernals, thawed
1 tablespoon olive or vegetable oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 medium yellow onion, diced
1 jalapeno, seeded and minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 cup peeled, seeded, and diced fresh tomato, or canned tomato (with juices)
1 14 ounce can red beans, kidney beans, or chili beans (for a bit more heat), drained and liquid reserved
Salt
Hot Sauce

For the Chicken:
Rinse the chicken breasts and pat dry. Combine the olive oil, mustard, salt, and spices and smear it on the chicken.
Refrigerate for at least 15 minutes, or up to several hours, until you’re ready to cook.
Grill the chicken (you can also saute or broil)

For the Maque Choux:
Cut the corn kernals from the cob, being careful not to cut too close to the cob (where the kernals become dry and starchy).
Heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet to foaming. Add the onion and cook for 2-3 minutes, then add the tomato, beans, and 1/4 cup of water or reserved bean liquid and season to taste with salt and a little hot sauce. Stir and cook until heated through, then swirl in the remaining tablespoon of butter. Keep the vegetables warm while cooking the chicken.