Soup Week 2010: Tomato Bulgur Soup with Crunchy Five-Spice Cauliflower

Bulgur is one of those tricky ingredients—not because it’s difficult to use; far from it. More because, for me at least, it’s just a little offbeat. It’s not part of my everyday repertoire. The Recipe Index of this blog is proof of that: in six years, I’ve only discussed one recipe that calls for it. And I’ll bet you can guess what that recipe is, since it’s the first thing most people think of when they hear the word “bulgur”—if they think of anything at all. I’m embarrassed to admit that my one and only bulgur post was in October 2005. How could I have forgotten about it?

Luckily, I was reminded recently, when I was assigned a story on the grain by Weight Watchers. It gave me the opportunity to do some eye-opening research. Although I’ve been aware of bulgur for years, until I started reading I didn’t know all that much about it. I won’t go into the fascinating details here, but I will say that the single most interesting thing I learned, which may not be news to you, is that bulgur is a whole grain that’s been pre-cooked. It starts out as wheat berries, which take 45 minutes to plump. I loves me some wheatberries, but they’re not exactly weeknight fare. Bulgur, on the other hand? 15 to 20 minutes! What stressed-out parent doesn’t need a whole grain that’s ready in a flash?

Suffice to say that writing that story left me with a hankering, so when I was in my favorite Greek market a few weeks back and spied big sacks of the stuff piled high, I couldn’t resist. So far I’ve used it to make a few pilafs, and they’ve been quite tasty, but my favorite dish is the soup you see pictured above. It’s vaguely Middle Eastern, scented with cumin, coriander, and cinnamon, and it’s quite substantial. Definitely a meal in a bowl. Those little crunchy bits of cauliflower are tossed with Chinese five-spice powder, which sounds odd. But the version I use is composed of cinnamon, star anise, anise seed, ginger, and cloves, so we’re in the same flavor ballpark. If you’re in a real rush you can skip the cauliflower entirely, and stir in a drained and rinsed can of chickpeas instead. Either way you’ll have a fast, filling, and seriously flavorful meal in well under an hour.

I’ve got about a pound and a half of bulgur left, so there’s more playing in store. How do you use it?

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Tomato Bulgur Soup with Crunchy Five-Spice Cauliflower
Serves 4 to 6
Cooking Time: 30 minutes without the cauliflower; 45 minutes with

Weight Watchers: 4 servings are 5 points each; 6 servings are 3 points each

For the cauliflower:
1 small head cauliflower
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon Chinese five-spice powder

For the soup:
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped fine
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup bulgur wheat
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
Salt & pepper
4 cups reduced-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
2 cups water
2 cups canned tomato puree or diced tomatoes with their juices
2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
Juice of 1/2 lemon

  1. First, prep the cauliflower: Set the oven to 425°F, and coat a rimmed baking sheet with cooking spray. Core the cauliflower, removing most of the stems, and chop the heck out of it. Seriously, you want the pieces to be roughly the size of a cooked grain of barley. You’ll wind up with a big pile of itty-bitty pieces, and some will fly all over the kitchen but that’s ok, the dog will eat it. (We don’t have a dog, unfortunately.) I imagine you could do this by pulsing in the food processor, too, but I didn’t think of that until it was too late.
  2. Put all that cauliflower into a large bowl and toss with the oil, five-spice, and salt. Keep tossing until it’s well combined, then spread it on the baking sheet. Make sure it’s not crowded, or it won’t crisp up—if you need a second tray, don’t hesitate. Stick it in the oven for 20 to 25 minutes, but set a timer for 12 minutes—you’ll want to give things a stir halfway through. You can do this part well ahead of time, but the cauliflower will lose some of its crunch.
  3. Now get started on the soup: In a large saucepan or soup pot, heat the oil over medium heat. When it shimmers add the onion and stir. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is golden but not browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the garlic and cook just until the aroma releases, another 30 seconds.
  4. Stir in the bulgur and let it toast for about a minute, stirring constantly, then add the spices and give them about 30 seconds of stirring. Add the broth, water, and tomatoes and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and let the soup simmer for 15 to 20 minutes, until the bulgur is tender.
  5. When the bulgur is softened, stir in the parsley and lemon juice and serve. Top each bowl with some of the cauliflower.

Previously, on Soup Week 2010:
Quick Asian Noodle Soup
Lamb Curry Soup