Crack CauliflowerApril 5, 2014
My mother. My daughter. They’ve been talking about a cauliflower mash they recently made. They text about it.
At a Lilliputian shared-plate outpost in Providence, Rhode Island—curiously named North despite being located in the southwestern section of the city—as our group’s bottoms are just nestling into five of the eighteen coveted seats we’ve been on our feet almost an hour waiting for, my son, a regular, pronounces that first and foremost we will be ordering the Spicy Cauliflower in Various Forms. It sounds like a camp-ey horror film.
A few days go by, and then it’s Ronnie, posted up at the bar at Rafele Ristorante, in Greenwich Village. Ronnie, the pop-up dining impresario, and spouse of a major-domo food writer who eats for a living. Ronnie, the fundfinder and champion-in-charge of the definitive James Beard documentary, America’s First Foodie. Ronnie, who—bartenders and waiters wake up—visibly shudders when his glass of rosé is nearing empty, and among whose death-bed wishes will be to learn that he has played a role in converting you and you and you into year-round rosé drinkers. Ronnie, my carnivorous comrade from Puerto Rico y Wall Street.
“Of all the things on the menu,” he leans in, a cognac-hued rosé in hand, “I know this is gonna sound funny, but the roasted cauliflower salad with pine nuts is outrageous.” It’s like I just got a tip on a hot start-up. Shhh.
Hey, wait a minute, why am I acting so surprised? When I ate at The Publican two years ago, did I blog about the chicken liver pate with rhubarb compote? No. I blogged about the cauliflower. When Hurricane Irene (remember her, the appetizer to Superstorm Sandy?) hit and I wanted to tell you all about it, you ended up with a survival-pantry recipe featuring a can of sardines… and cauliflower. Given liberties with butter and salt, I’m the one who swoons over the Gerber-esque virtues of the cauliflower my English friend’s grandmother boils on Sundays for as long as the leg of lamb takes to roast.
So why am I surprised?
Maybe because of all the things cauliflower isn’t. It isn’t news. It isn’t a cure. It isn’t good raw. It isn’t even good for you raw. It isn’t (usually) colorful. It certainly isn’t exotic. It’s profoundly un-juiceable, and if it is an anti-oxidant, it sure doesn’t look like one.
So can we all agree to spare this plain-Jane carbuncular knob of ivory humility the tiresome exaltation of kale? Can we pretty please leave it alone, even if it is vegan, and gluten-free, and not manufactured in a facility that processes nuts?
Can we just let it be Humble and Delicious in Various Forms?
HERE’S WHAT YOU NEED (for 2 to 4 portions, but if you are like my friend, MP, who call this stuff “crack”, make it for 2)
1 large head cauliflower
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons (20 g) pine nuts
3 tablespoons (30 g) dried currants
2 tablespoons whole wheat panko, or regular panko
Fresh Italian parsley, chopped, for garnish
HERE’S WHAT TO DO: (Listen up, and pay attention to the photos, because a dish this simple is all about technique.)
To roast the cauliflower and pine nuts:
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190ºC). Line a baking tray with parchment paper and set aside. To cut the cauliflower into small florets, as pictured above, hold the head over a large bowl with the stem facing you, and using a narrow paring knife, cut out the main stem in one conical piece, removing as much stem as you can. The head should fall apart into large florets. Break it apart if it doesn’t. Repeat the same cutting technique into the center of each floret, and allow the miniature florets to fall into the bowl. Discard the stems, or reserve for another use, such as cauliflower soup or mash.
Drizzle 1 1/2 tablespoons of the olive oil over the mini-florets, and toss them until evenly coated with oil. Season lightly with salt and pepper, spread out on the parchment, and roast in the oven for 1 hour. Depending on your oven, you may want to stir them around once or twice during the hour, but use the photo above as your guide. You are looking for some really toasty bits, almost on the edge of burned.
Roast the pine nuts at the same time by putting them on their own small baking tray and placing them in the same oven for between 8 and 10 minutes. You are shooting for very dark brown, almost burned, as you see in the photo, and since you know your oven and I don’t, keep your eye on them. Alternatively, you can play it safer and roast the pine nuts at 350°F (180ºC) for between 14 and 16 minutes.
To finish the dish:
Once the cauliflower and pine nuts are roasted, heat the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil over medium heat in a 12-inch (30 cm) heavy-gauge skillet. Toss in the currants and fry them until they just begin to crisp, about 2 minutes, then stir in the panko until it is coated evenly with the oil and currant mixture. Season with salt and pepper, then stir in the pine nuts and cauliflower until evenly mixed. Remove from heat, sprinkle liberally with the parsley, and serve.