The weather has been so spectacular lately. It’s hard to focus on winter vegetables when it is nearly 80 degrees with blue skies and blinding sunshine.
But focus we must. So during this week’s trip to the Hollywood Farmers Market I trained my lens on cauliflower. Mark Twain once quipped it was ”a cabbage with a college education”. Today they’d just say it was part of the “elite, liberal establishment”. But Ivy League or no, cauliflower is another wonderful vegetable often given the cold shoulder by cooks.
Love it or hate it you may, but you cannot deny that cauliflower is very versatile. It has a wonderful mellow quality to it and is easily influenced by whatever other tastes you choose to pair it with.
So it is very difficult for me to understand all the misunderstandings surrounding this vegetable. It has come in and out of vogue many times in it’s nearly 600 year culinary service to mankind.
It may have its roots in the Far East, but it made its way to the Mediterranean where it caught on and became a staple for a very long time.
But its fortunes also rose in Flemish society in the 1600’s (note its prominent placement atop the carrots here in the Joachim Beuckelaer masterpiece) and then again became the all the rage of the French court. Louis XV’s mistress, La Comtesse du Barry had a consomme of veal, oxtails and cauliflower named after her. She was considered very fashionable.
In mid-century America the cauliflower became almost despised. You could find it on relish trays, buried under cheese sauces, or baked into oblivion in gratins. But it was not a vegetable of high esteem— like say the baked potato, boiled potato, fried potato, mashed potato or the ever-popular scalloped potato.
But George Bush the First may have delivered the lowest blow of all to my good friend the cauliflower. In 1990, in an interview, he trumpeted the fact that one of the great perks of office was that he didn’t have to eat cauliflower anymore. Ouch!
Though cauliflower is very good raw and crunchy it is also almost impossible to overcook (if handled well). This is an interesting bit of information. Which contributes to its versatile nature.
A lot of people say they don’t know what to do with it. So they end up boiling it into a bland mush and trying to resuscitate it with a cheesy sauce. I don’t mean to disrespect this preparation, because it actually has its attractions. It can be a very comforting, lower calorie replacement to the ubiquitous mashed potato. But like it’s cousins, broccoli and cabbage, long, slow, wet cooking methods transform these vegetables. They begin to take on a creamy quality, even when there is no cream involved.
But add a little cream and cauliflower melds and mellows in a very unctuous way. It is prized for the nuanced flavor and rich nutty notes it brings to these preparations. Chefs such a Thomas Keller are elevating its status and preparing it in dishes like panna cotta with beluga caviar.
So I want to encourage you to get creative with your cauliflower too. You don’t have to have the skills or talent of a master like Mr. Keller either.
When I want to get personal with a particular food, I look to its roots for inspiration. Before the 1600’s Cauliflower cultivation in the west was pretty much restricted to Italy.
So, I have decided to give an Italian flair to my cauliflower. Of course Italian cooking varies from region to region. But to my taste buds, Sicilian cooking is comparatively unique. Here at SippitySup we strive to be unique.
Due to it’s geography (an island off the tip of the boot), it has a culinary flavor all its own. Being both a trading post and navigationally important, its culture was heavily influenced by the traveler passing through. So it’s easy to see its food traditions developed a bit separately from that of the mainland.
With that in mind, I am making Cauliflower with a Sicilian Anchovy Crust.
For this recipe I recommend a fairly petite little cauliflower. We are going to steam it to a mellow, but slightly crunchy texture. The diminutive size will help us cook through to the center with out over cooking the florets.
We are also going to keep it whole. We can do this because of its size. In order to consistently cook a larger guy you would probably have to remove the florets.
Start by coring out a small section of the stem. You can then jam a whole garlic clove inside. Don’t worry if it falls out during cooking. It will have scented the interior by then and will be discarded.
Then it’s a simple as steaming it in a bit of water.
The crust is made with fresh breadcrumbs and a few signature Sicilian ingredients. In this case I used olive oil, butter, garlic, parsley and Parmesan. But to this you could add or subtract ingredients like capers, chili flakes, fennel seeds and olives. But whatever you do you must include anchovies. If anyone dares pipe in and say they don’t like anchovies, well all I can say is quit spending so much of your life not liking things.
Once you have browned this mixture up divide between the serving plate and the top of the cauliflower. Top it with a little Parmesan and quickly brown it under the broiler. Serve it warm with a drizzle of the very best olive oil in the house and you will have a memorable treat. I promise. So, “vivere lungo il piccolo cavolfiore”.
SERIOUS FUN FOOD