(This story first appeared on Tastebook, where I'm doing an occasional cooking column. Check 'em out.)
Kitchens are places where habit reigns.
Sometimes, that’s good. I think about recipes that are as mindless as sleepwalking, like the fried eggs with breadcrumbs from Judy Rodgers’s seminal book, The Zuni Café Cookbook. I always have eggs around; I almost always have breadcrumbs on-hand. I can cook that dish at the screech of dawn with one eye open—and I have, many times.
Then there are the routines that hobble us. I like cauliflower a lot. Somehow that affection consistently leads me to a blazing oven, a roasting pan, and loads of olive oil. The cauliflower shrivels around the edges, sweetening as it chars. The result is as good at room temperature or cold as it is hot. Easy.
If I’m feeling intrepid, I’ll make a cauliflower soup or an Indian stew of sorts with onion, cumin and coriander, garlic and ginger and perhaps some tomato. It’s never salad that is on my cauliflower mind.
I recently moved to New Orleans and, to my naïve surprise, cauliflower is everywhere right now.
It’s in the farmers’ markets, green leaves wrapping the vegetable like those hippie-minded graphics of hands cradling the earth. It’s the star of one of New Orleans’ better restaurants, Domenica, where it’s marinated then cooked in a wood-fired oven and served with whipped goat’s feta. I had visions of wintry vegetables like cauliflower, kale, and broccoli being absent in New Orleans. Why, after all, would a snowboarder try to find powder in Louisiana? How wrong I was.
Because it’s omnipresent here at the moment, cauliflower is also, of course, in CSA boxes, and one Tuesday I was saddled with a five-pounder. Like a Betty Crocker robot, I hit the repeat button on my roasting approach. But the head was too large to cook all at once. Into a plastic bag went the cauliflower shrapnel, those bits that scatter everywhere when you dissemble a head.
A few days later, I had spare nubs of raw cauliflower in the refrigerator and a creeping late-morning hunger. During a fortuitous wander through a new cookbook, French Roots, from a (very) longtime chef at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California, and his wife, I had flagged an enticing recipe for cauliflower salad with hard-boiled eggs.
Out came the wok and the bamboo steamer to cook the cauliflower. Into a pot went the eggs. When the cauliflower and eggs were done, I cooled the eggs enough to peel and chopped them helter-skelter. I then did the same with a few oily anchovy fillets. Red wine vinegar; salt; pepper; good olive oil; those anchovies: all mixed together in a bowl. In went the cauliflower, the egg bits, and some parsley. The salad was subtle but substantive, bold brushstrokes on an enormous white canvas.
Just like that, habit broken.
Big-Flavored Steamed Cauliflower Salad
Adapted from French Roots by Jean-Pierre Moullé and Denise Lurton Moullé
It doesn’t really matter what kind of vinegar you use here. The recipe calls for balsamic; I used a Spanish red wine vinegar. You could even use fresh lemon juice, if that’s all you have around. If you don’t have anchovies, don’t go buy any. Leave them out instead. Or if you only have salt-packed anchovies, use those. I like to think of this recipe as a blueprint, not a finished house. (Don’t tell the authors.)
- 1 small head cauliflower
- 6 eggs
- Good olive oil
- A spoonful of vinegar
- 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets, coarsely chopped
- Freshly ground pepper
- A few sprigs of parsley
- Flaky salt
Set up a steamer situation. You could use a saucepan and a metal basket or a bamboo steamer. Or a microwave, for that matter. In addition, add water and the eggs to a medium saucepan.
Break the cauliflower into small pieces by either using your hands or a knife. It’s easiest to remove the spokes in big pieces, then work those into smaller florets or parts of florets. Invariably, teeny pieces of cauliflower will scatter all over. Don’t worry: You can cook these too.
Add the cauliflower to the steamer. Bring the water with the eggs to a boil. Let boil for a minute, then turn off the heat, cover and let the eggs sit in the hot water for 10 or 11 minutes. Prepare a bowl filled with ice water. Meanwhile, keep an eye on the cauliflower. When it’s tender, remove from the heat. When the eggs are done, move them to the ice water. After about a minute, gently crack each egg on the counter a bit, then return to the ice water for a few more minutes. Peel the eggs when cool enough to grab easily, then chop into smallish pieces.
In a large bowl, stir together the olive oil, vinegar, anchovy, salt, and pepper, smashing the anchovy so it mostly dissolves. Taste. The dressing should be rich from the oil and gently sharp from the vinegar. You’re looking for some boldness.
Add the cauliflower and toss. Do the same with the eggs. Chop the parsley leaves, then add and toss. Taste then add a bit of flaky salt so the flavors pop. Serve.