October 26, 2011

Pot-Roasted Cauliflower with Harissa

I was hesitant to do a post on cauliflower. Cauliflower often gets a bad rap. It's referred to as the bastard cousin of broccoli. People say it's dense, stalky and flavorless. And I'll admit it, cauliflower is not the sexiest of vegetables.

But I've long been a fan of cauliflower, ever since my mom made it when we were kids by parboiling it, then sautéing it in butter and topping it with lemon and breadcrumbs. It was one of those vegetable dishes that, as a kid, I was reluctant to admit I totally loved. Kids aren't supposed to love cauliflower - and God knows I was a picky eater - but I loved my mom's cauliflower.

But I assumed that I was, for the most part, alone in my appreciation of the vegetable. Sure, you'd see it here and there - in aloo gobi at and Indian restaurant, boiled and flavorless at a dinner party - but who ever really craved cauliflower? Who ever makes a effort to make cauliflower a regular part of their lives?

Well, to my surprise, a certain five year old from Oklahoma does. This morning, as I was contemplating whether it was even worth posting about cauliflower, I serendipitously received a package from Patty Simon, a long time family friend.  She had sent me a book along with a drawing from her niece depicting her favorite foods. First on the list? Cauliflower. Clearly, it was a sign.

I do have to admit that this girl seems to have a pretty advanced palate for someone here age - in fact she has a more advanced palate than many people my age. In addition to cauliflower, her favorite foods include tater-tots, fresh cherries, octopus and soup with tofu. Evidently, I need to sit down with this girl and have a meal. That said, at five years old, I would have been hesitant to even get near a steaming bowl of tofu soup, much less octopus (which she lovingly draws as sushi on a bed of rice wrapped in nori!). I think were I to make the same list as a five year old, it would include cinnamon toast crunch, frosted flakes, string cheese, noodles with butter, and milkshakes.

Sandwiches at the Wesleyan Farmers Market
Nonetheless, our five year old from Oklahoma gave me the inspiration to post on cauliflower. This recipe came about when Damiano and I were planning last week's sandwich for the Wesleyan Farmers Market (we sell locally-sourced sandwiches at each market). We wanted to do a cauliflower sandwich, but knew that the cauliflower had to be something special if people were going to like this sandwich. Damiano had seen a recipe from Rene Redzepi (of the much-hyped restaurant Noma in Denmark) for whole roasted cauliflower in The Guardian.

We made it (well, we've made it about three times now), and boy, it's good. This is the most flavorful cauliflower you've ever tasted, deeply caramelized on the bottom and heavily infused with the flavors from the pot. It works wonderfully as a side dish, or you can even make it the centerpiece of a light meal, served with some yogurt dip and bread. We used ours in a sandwich with roasted leek mayo and pickled carrots on baguette. However you serve it, this recipe couldn't possibly be simpler. You don't even have to cut up the cauliflower. If you know anything about Noma, you wont be surprised to learn that Redzepi's version uses juniper branches and yogurt whey. Damiano simplified and adapted his version so that you just melt some butter in a pot, add some garlic, thyme and harissa (a Tunisian pepper blend increasingly available in the US), and throw in the head of cauliflower. Then, to quote Redzepi from the article, "it's 35 minutes of don't fucking worry about it." Easy enough? I think so.

Pot-Roasted Cauliflower with Harissa
Adapted from Rene Redzepi in The Guardian  
Serves 4-5 as a side dish

-1 head of cauliflower
-3 tablespoons butter
-3 sprigs thyme
-1 teaspoon harissa, or other dried pepper blend
-2 cloves garlic, peeled
-salt and pepper

1. To prepare the cauliflower, use a chef's knife to cut off the bottom stem and any surrounding leaves, leaving the entire white head intact. Using the back of a knife, gently crush the garlic against a cutting board.

2. In a pot large enough to hold the head of cauliflower, melt the butter on medium-high heat. Add the sprigs of thyme, harissa, and garlic. Allow to cook for a minute until aromatic and the butter is lightly browned.

3. Add the head of cauliflower to the pot, stem side down. Season with salt and pepper. Cover with a tight-fitting lid and allow to steam in the butter for 10 minutes on medium-high heat, then turn the heat down to low and allow to cook for another 30 minutes or so, until the cauliflower is easily pierced with a knife. Remove the cauliflower and place on a plate for serving, drizzling the butter mixture on top. Slice however you want and serve at once.