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I like to eat. Because I like to eat, I like to cook, especially for friends I like to eat with. That’s what this blog is about: what I lik...

April 29, 2015

Blog the Twenty-eighth: Two Cauliflower Sides

Cauliflower fried crispy
or Spicy cauliflower salad.


I thought I'd follow up on my two recipes for cauliflower pasta with two for cauliflower sides, if only for the opportunity to talk food shopping. I've told you before that I go shopping without a list, watching rather for the grace of the present moment, which generally comes in the form of a sale. Somewhere in the world something is in season in such abundance that the superfluity has made its way across the globe to my local grocery, where it is piled high on the cheap. If a trifectal probe of eye, nose, and poke turns up a fine specimen of the species, into the shopping cart it goes, and we'll figure out what to do with it when we get home.

Now this kairotic approach to food shopping makes as much financial as culinary sense, and is far more sensible than the new foody fatuity of cooking "local", unless of course you live where sive Deus sive Natura manifestly intended Man to live, on the Mediterranean. But once you migrate north to places where for a third of the year only such subsistence fare as root vegetables is available, then you've already flouted nature, and high tech techniques for growing vegetables in the snow are no more natural than turning to commerce to bring you things in season from those post‑lapsarian Edens to the south that are warm enough to perennially bring forth things not only nutritious but delicious, by the sweat of Man's brow, as God prescribes, without thermals.


There's something about northern climes that breeds a Gentile taste for a self-discipline intent on putting such primal pleasures as eating to contrived tests of endurance. The “cook local” trend strikes me as such new-age Calvinism. Its puritanical penchant for pointless discipline is a moral indulgence the poor don't have the luxury of indulging in, entailing as it does a readiness to pay high prices for products of local small scale production (there's a reason some of us not-so-poor call Whole Foods Whole Paycheck). The upping of the ante from eating not only "organic" but "local" is a trend for people with more money than sense, an expensive frugality that makes dinner worse in the bargain. It may have the Kantian purity of willing a good without getting it, but it's bound to leave a bad taste in your mouth.


If beets grown locally by organic farmers are the only colored food in our area for three months, to how many different uses can we contrive to put them? Here's a better question: of all the delicious things on sale, which shall we cook today? Well, there's a lot of cauliflower around at half the usual price, which itself is half the price of the organic, so do the math, and let's cook that. You already have two pasta recipes to choose from, a sweet and steamy pasta soup and a savory pasta sauté, and soon you'll have two styles of vegetable side as well, crispy fried cauliflower and spicy cauliflower salad. How shall we choose what to make? What we're in the mood for? No.

No, you must look to the whole. When Socrates offers an ideal of the just city as an image of the happy soul, he makes a point of saying that its Lawgiver must look to the happiness of the whole city in legislating for its various classes, and not the happiness of any one class. The happy dinner likewise requires the justice of parts duly ordered, for as too many cooks spoil the soup, so too many tastes will spoil the dinner. We want harmony, not cacophony; a balanced manifold, not a heap of whims.


The ruling element of the just dinner is the main dish, which for the just eater means animal flesh, be it of fish, fowl, kine, or swine.  [If there's a justification for vegetarianism, it comes from a categorical imperative beyond nature and nature's desire, or else from a resentment against nature and nature's desire, which probably amounts to the same thing, as Nietzsche notes.] Generally, if my meat is dry roasted, it wants vegetable sides sautéed or steamed; but if the meat is sautéed, it wants sides roasted or steamed, for the contrast of counterpoint. Should my meat be steamy, I want to answer it in kind, because something too spicy or savory might upstage it. However, if I have a meat breaded and fried, I don't want the same in my cauliflower; instead, spicy cauliflower salad will greet savory breading with its zesty seasoning, while the cool cleanness of its boiled cauliflower will offer refreshing relief from both.

Sometimes contrariety is the thing, sometimes unanimity. Counterpoint is harmonious in one way, and harmony in another, and even dissonance can be harmonious in due measure (like the sourness of that vinegar on the salad following the main dish). The measure here is not number but taste, and what's being measured by taste is the harmony of the whole dinner.

When your meat is roasted, then cauliflower fried crispy is the way to go. Back in Brooklyn, our way of frying cauliflower was tedious, because we used to parboil the florets [I'm always perplexed when people ask me what "parboil" means—is the dropping of the "t" so hard to see?] The idea was to soften the cauliflower enough by parboiling, that it would only need crisping in some hot oil after breading. Of course, if they're to crisp, they have to dry off, the moist being the enemy of the crisp, so they had to be boiled, drained, laid out, and air-dried before breading and frying. Done this way, this little vegetable side required lots of advanced prep—too much.

Moreover, once crisped, the cauliflower doesn’t stay that way long, and since they have to be fried in batches, it’s hard to come up with a platterful of optimally crispy cauliflower florets, even if your syncing with the main dish be impeccable. My aunt Rose used to re-crisp a platter's worth on a cookie sheet in the oven while plattering the meat, which is a very good idea. Then she got the idea of also strewing curls of grated mozzarella over the fried cauliflower, to melt on and around them, which is a crowd‑pleaser, but an idea I can't endorse, for reasons I can't articulate, although I wouldn't hesitate to do it for kids, including the grown-up kind. (You could call it au gratin, but that wouldn't help its case with me, would it?)

These days, I fry cauliflower another way, a way that comes from a most unexpected source. As I've said, my firstborn sister has been the corrupter of our food from her youth. Before she got her tonsils out, the soundtrack of my infancy was riddled with her tantrums about what she would not eat. That impediment removed, she grew avid not only for the food of our people, but the food of all other peoples as well. Become the family Advocate of culinary pluralism, she is become the Adversary. She's forever trying to introduce us to something a little "different”, or worse yet, much worse, to do something a little "different" with our food. Christmas Eve, she snuck some Bay Seasoning into the flour for the fried calamari, and the instant it touched my brothers' tongues, they with scrunched faces, "Something's different about these," and I, wordless with arched eyebrows, "You said it, not me."

Her antipasto is often more smorgasbord, ranging the globe from West to East, Old World to New, overleaping the Alps, the Channel, the Atlantic, the Strait, the Pacific, with Fancy captaining. To be sure, the many love the multicolored cloak. But knowing how execrable I find the francofying of our ancestral food in the north of the peninsula, imagine me, Gentle Reader, before such culinary ultramontanism, such indiscriminate diversity and undiscriminating inclusivity, so egalitarian, so populist, so global, at the very hearth, before the very penates, shuddering.

Well, we know it is much better to suffer injustice than to do it, as Socrates says, so shall not we at any rate look to the best sort of eater, and desire to eat as they desire to? And we know too that God is merciful, and that my sister is a good enough cook, more abusing than lacking skill, that a discriminating palate can, on a principle of natural selection, still cobble together a fitting antipasto. Call me Advocate of the survival of the fitting.

Moreover, Art loves accident, so even my sister has come unexpectedly up with a better way to cook the cauliflower of our people. She figured out that you can bread it raw if you fry it at a low enough temperature in enough oil—it cooks through and crisps without getting soggy. She discovered that the same is true of asparagus. I'm much more apt to bread and fry cauliflower and asparagus these days her way, because more often than not I found the old way too tedious to be worth the trouble.

Cauliflower Fried Crispy

As usual, I turn the cauliflower on its head, tear off its limbs, and cut out its heart. Then I break it up into florets twice bite-size—still big enough to require cutting in two with a fork to eat decorously, or else opening wide to engulf. I put the florets to soak in a cold bath until I’m ready for them, at which point I beat two eggs with salt, pepper, and a dollop of milk. I’ll toss a handful of florets into this egg‑wash to coat them well, and then fish out a few florets at a time, allowing excess egg-wash to drip off, and then plop them onto a mound of seasoned bread crumbs.

I like to bread things my mother's way: onto a paper towel I pour out a mound of 4C Seasoned Bread Crumbs and add a few tablespoons of flour. The flour is for an under-layer that clings more evenly and transparently to the cauliflower than the breading. This is a short-cut: traditionally you first flour, then dip in egg, then bread, for a thicker crust (indeed, some extremists even do a second round of egg and crumbs). But I don't like thick crusts. They cover over. Think of tempura: does it really matter to you what's underneath? You have to take a bite and peer in just to figure out what you're eating. Palates that like thick and crispy crusts on food like thick and crispy crusts, not food. But I like food, and I want my crust to frame my food, not crate it. The cauliflower's the Thing. I want its white crags to peep out at you through a mottled crust, its texture to remain palpable to your palate, its flavor to prevail to taste.

Back to breading: I use the corners of the paper towel from opposite ends to roll the florets back and forth in the floured bread crumbs, to coat evenly. Gingerly I remove them to a platter, where they are best left to dry off before frying. If I don't have time for that, however, then I want my oil hot and ready to go, so as to fry freshly breaded florets before their breading has a chance to get soggy.

Either way, you want enough oil to come at least half way up the florets, and the oil should be over medium-low heat, so that the florets sizzle gently, rather than lively. When the undersides are well gilded, turn them over to do the other side. When they look appetizing and yield tenderly to a probing fork, remove gingerly to a cookie sheet for re-crisping in the oven before serving, or else to a platter lined with paper towel for serving immediately when all are done (removing the paper towel, needless to say). If re-crisping, put them in a moderately hot oven (350 degrees?) while plattering and serving the meat et al., and they should be ready in time to go to the table last, hot and crisp. But taste them first—they’ll no doubt need salting evenly all over, twice over with rolling in between to hit both sides.

They're a crowd-pleaser because they're a kid-pleaser, kids being the most discriminatory if undiscriminating class of eaters in the eating polity. As I've mentioned in earlier posts, you can get a kid to eat almost any vegetable if you but bread and fry it. But let me here clarify that by a kid I mean not so much an eater of a certain age as an eater of a certain stage of soul. Aristotle says the young are not fit students of Ethics or Politics for lack of experience, and in the class of the inexperienced he astutely includes grown men who never learn from what they do and suffer.

Similarly, when it comes to eating, there are boys in men's bodies and men in boys' bodies, and brats at every age. My youngest nephew, for one, is as manly an eater as I know, ready to try anything and willing to eat most things.  His older brother is more of a gustatory adolescent (even if his palate puts many a Gentile one to shame), but he knows enough to be ashamed and furtive when he's unwilling to eat something. Those who in contrast not only decline but whine are brats. The just cook must not accommodate, but rather look to the good and happiness of the whole dinner polity, and not to any one class, let alone brats.

I blame their mothers. Evolutionists tell us that infants will eat whatever their mothers feed them until they become toddlers, when they reject any food not fed them before then, a survival mechanism against their eating anything in the wild dangerous to their health. Well, no longer in the wild, mothers are to blame who don't follow up when the little creature reaches the age of reason and begins to think about what he eats. His mind has a natural appetite of its own for the manifold of being, which includes as one of its parts the manifold of food. It's up to the mother's reason to play surrogate for the child's, and rouse his courage against his appetite's infantile fear that peas are dangerous to his health. If she fail, she grows his body while stunting his soul.

But if reason keeps rousing courage to dare trial, in time the delight of Pea Nature will surely dawn upon his soul as a heretofore unrecognized delight; his courage may then rest from its labor and his reason rise to contemplation of his appetite's delight. When you were a child, you thought as a child, you spake as child, you ate as a child; if you are to become a man, you must set childish things aside and eat like one. Man up, kid!

But most mothers are sophists. They flatter their child's affections and aversions both, accommodating dinner accordingly, if only to keep the peace. Some peace! True peace is not the absence of conflict, but the presence of justice, said a Pope once. You may have thought your mother was a good cook because she made you what you liked to eat, but if what you liked to eat was not in truth good, or if what was in truth good you did not like to eat, then your mother was not in truth the good cook, or the good mother. Mothers for the most part are not devoted to the Thing Itself but to love of their own, for whose sake they will mar, maim, or murder a recipe, without scruple

One could argue in defense that such maternal predilection for their own is only natural, if one is willing to say that the instinctual and factual is more natural than the rational and right. Reason looks to the essence of the dish and the justice of the dinner, and it does not permit puerile appetites to overrule it. Fickle appetites make for finicky eaters, and if finicky eaters don't ruin the dinner menu, then they ruin the dinner hour, and it is not good for the rest of us, which is not just. So man up, Mom!

Of course, mothers may err by defect of skill as much as by excess of affection, especially Gentile ones. As I've said before, I have Gentile friends who like to say, "I don't like vegetables, but I like your vegetables." I could tell them, "It's not vegetables you don't like, just your mother's vegetables," but one shouldn't diss a guy's mother directly, even a Gentile one.

I had a couple over for dinner one night, the one a Czech baroness, an aesthete with an affection for things Italian, including my cooking, and then her Irish husband. When I announced that in honor of his ethnic heritage I was making a special red cabbage risotto for the first dish, his wife looked at me with alarmed shame on his behalf, "Oh, he doesn't eat cabbage." I detect a boyish look imploring dispensation involuntarily flit across his face, before a suave manly voice steps forward and very politely insists, "Oh, don't worry, that will be fine”—belied by lips bracing with Jansenist self-abnegation and Irish eyes not smiling.

So as I make the risotto, I talk the boy down from the ledge, dilating chattily on how I came up with the name of my recipe for red cabbage "Barbary," and how I once made a risotto of leftovers for some of our mutual foody friends, who loved it, and so I figured he would like it too, as a novelty for an Irish boy raised on green cannonball cabbage, so unlike this one—and he liked the stories. More importantly, he liked the risotto: "This doesn't taste like cabbage at all! This tastes delicious." It does too taste like cabbage! See! It's not cabbage you don't like, just your mother's cabbage! But I didn't say it, content that I had abetted a baby-step to gustatory manhood.

Spicy Cauliflower Salad

My second recipe for a cauliflower side is Sicilian, but I got it from a book rather than my father. Sometimes people ask me (in thinly veiled reproach) why I don't credit my father more for my food blog. Well, I had to think about that, and came up with this: my father is Sicilian. Sicilians have their own way of doing things. They're Sicilians. They say so themselves. They often won’t even own their connection to the Italian mainland. Their deepest layer was probably laid down by ancient Greek colonists, but many a would be conqueror of the island followed in succeeding centuries, from all corners of the globe, each leaving a genetic strain in the language and food, for a hybrid as intermixed as it is distinctive.

So although my father's taste both for food and for innovation much influenced my mother's cooking, the substance and spirit remained that of middle south Italy. I only recently heard this geographical designation used, and I took to it immediately, as capturing a telling distinction. South Italy had not one but two kingdoms ruling it: the Kingdom of Naples and the Kingdom of Sicily. The culinary culture stretching down the shin of the peninsula from Rome to Naples is more indigenous, more bucolic, more balmy and sanguine, while in the deep south, at once more rustic and more open to exotica of trade and invasion, the sun blazes, the land burgeons, the spirit flares, and so does the food. I fancy that middle south Italy, being more Roman, is more saturnine; the deep south, more Greek, is more bacchanal in its banquets.

I often find Sicilian food too too: too many flavors, too many layers, like polyphony muddled with too divergent voices, but when I do like it, I like it because, like good polyphony, it achieves a manifold. This spicy cauliflower salad is a good example. In fact, here the food of my mother's people must give way to my father's. My mother once told me that I could add boiled cauliflower to broccoli lemony; well, the mix of green and white looked great on the plate, but the insipidness of the cauliflower thus seasoned not only disappointed but even somehow sucked flavorfulness out of the broccoli. It was perhaps for this reason that when I came across the Sicilian recipe for cauliflower salad in Carlo Midione's cookbook on southern Italian cooking, I didn't furrow and scrunch at the longish list of spicy ingredients. Indeed, I ended up adding a couple more, and the delight of the recipe is see how the putatively insipid cauliflower rises bold to the onslaught.

I put a big pot of well salted water to the boil, and add in cauliflower florets twice bite‑size, to boil until fork-tender. Then I gently scoop them out with a sieve and lay them out in a strainer, showering them still steaming with some salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper, enough to scent the billowing vapors.  Then, contrary to wont, I chop the spicy condiments very finely—I find that their flavors distribute better among the cauliflower crags if chopped together very finely. I'd use 6 to 12 olives, depending on size, be they brown, green, or a mix; 2 to 4 anchovy fillets, plump pink ones packed in oil, but without their oil; and a tablespoon or two of capers, the salted kind, but soaked in some white wine vinegar to separate out the salt crystals.

Beginning with the olives, I crush them hard with my palm against the cutting board, so as to expose and remove the pits, and pile up the torn flesh. I tear up the anchovy fillets and add them to the olive pile, and then chop the two together very fine, though short of mincing. I mince one smallish clove of garlic and one largish hot pepper together, and mix them into the pile. Then with a fine tined fork I drag the capers out of the vinegar, leaving the salt behind, but bringing droplets of vinegar along on purpose.

Time to add the cauliflower to the bowl and the chopped condiments to the cauliflower.  Now the cauliflower needs a generous dredging evenly all over of extra virgin olive oil. To mix cauliflower and condiments, I slide a long spatula underneath and gently flip the cauliflower up and over, rotating the bowl, going round and round, in gentle rhythmic motions, until the condiments look evenly distributed. Next I chop not too finely a great deal of fresh parsley, as much as a cup’s worth, and fold that in as well. The parsley makes all the difference in this dish. I don’t know why. Just does. Taste and see. While you’re at it, taste the cauliflower for salt, though the condiments be salty, and add as needed. Likewise, taste for acidity, and decide whether you’d like to add scant squirts of lemon juice, or else more droplets of vinegar—the original recipe called for neither, but I found the salad too unctuous without some.

I find this spicy cauliflower salad strangely versatile. It does well as a vegetable side to big meats as well as delicate fish. It can partner with the boiled, the roasted, or the fried. It can fill out an antipasto, replace a salad, or feed a vegan. It’s like one of those busy ties that somehow pairs well with shirts of quite varying hues and patterns. Problem is, if you’re having brats for dinner, be they small or big ones, this spicy salad’s versatility won’t do you much good, because it’s man-food. I don’t mean man in the gendered sense of “man-cave,” but rather of what every mother should want her kid to become: “When I was child, I thought as a child, I spake as child, I acted as a child; but when I became a man, I set childish things aside.”

In other words, if your mother really loved you, she’d want you to eat like a man—so stop whining for fried cauliflower and eat your cauliflower salad, you big baby.

*

Cauliflower Fried Crispy

* Break your head of cauliflower up into florets twice bite-size.
* Beat a couple of eggs with a dollop of milk and salt and pepper.
*  Pour out a mound of seasoned bread crumbs onto a paper towel, and mix in a couple tablespoons of flour. 
* Several at a time, dunk the florets into the eggwash to coat well. Then, letting excess drip away, transfer them to the pile of crumbs, and use the corners of the paper towel to roll them around in the crumbs, until all coated evenly. (For more of a crust, repeat.)  Gingerly remove them to a place of rest, to dry off.
* When ready to fry, on lowish-medium heat, heat up enough oil to come half way up the florets.  When the oil is hot, gingerly add florets to the pan, leaving them breathing room.  They should sizzle gently but steadily, audibly whispering.  When they gild crispy below, turn them over to the other side.
* If serving immediately, let them cool off on a paper towel, to whisk off oozing oil.  If to serve later, lay them out on a cookie sheet, to go into a 350 degree oven for re-heating and re-crisping at the kairotic moment.

*

Spicy Cauliflower Salad

* Break your head of cauliflower up into florets twice bite-size, and boil them in an abundant amount of well-salted water, only until al dente, tender but firm, like a good mother. Scoop them out of the water with a sieve and gently lay them out in a broad colander, sprinkling them steaming evenly all over with a light sprinkling of salt and generous grindings of black pepper.
* Use your palm to squash 6-12 olives, to expose and remove their pits, piling up the torn olive flesh.  Chop 2-4 anchovy fillets, add them to the olive pile, and chop the pile fine.  Now chop a garlic clove and hot red-pepper fine, and mix it into the pile.  Then mix in a tablespoon or two of capers, the salted sort but having been soaked in white (wine) vinegar to separate out the salt—be sure to accidentally get some of that vinegar into the pile too.
* Scrape the pile of spicy condiments into the bottom of a bowl and add in the warm cauliflower. Drizzle very generously all over with extra virgin olive oil. Then slide a spatula underneath and flip the condiments up and over into the cauliflower, gently and rhythmically, rotating the bowl, so as to fold all together. Then add in a great deal of parsley chopped not too finely, and fold it in as well.
* Taste. If you like, squirt lemon juice here and there. Taste again. If not delicious yet, give the cauliflower more of whatever it likes.