Reader, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that you don’t care much about cauliflower. Yes, cauliflower is probably what you can easily live without. Or let’s take it further: perhaps you even believe that cauliflower is among those things you are sure you’d be better off not knowing. Golly gee whiz, am I not assumptious? What do I know about what you detest?
As to me, I don’t recall I tried cauliflower as much as even once, either in my childhood or green teen years. The thing is, I always had dreadful feelings about cauliflower. In our country house garden, my grandmother used to grow it in a remote vegetable patch not too far from a latrine. There were lots of spiders in that patch too; they weaved their fluffy webs in the thick cauliflower plant leaves. I don’t like spiders. Cauliflower was dead for me.
Of course to say now that I haven’t stuck my fork at cauliflower since then would be an ugly lie. If you are one of the irreversible cauliflower haters, worry not – I’m not going to sing paeans to the wacky vegetable. I myself seem to remain an ambivalent cauliflower eater. I noticed that unless it’s stir-fried with an amalgam of my favorite Indian spices (turmeric, coriander, mustard seeds, to name but a few), turning therewith into a bomb of flavor, I don’t usually strive to eat it on its own, what with its rather mute taste and appearance. Offer it to me baked under a thick coating of cheese, and chances are high I might call you – sorry! -- a disgusting person. (I do not like baked cauliflower with cheese.) With that in mind, I surprised myself recently at how pleasant I found a dish which, in essence, is nothing more than briefly cooked cauliflower florets, chopped finely and bejeweled with toasted pine nuts, preserved lemon peel and fresh parsley, all splashed with lemon juice and olive oil, and salted and peppered. The dish is cauliflower ‘couscous’, ladies and gentlemen. And it’s tasty: fresh; slightly citrusy and pickle-y (preserved lemons), and toasty (pine nuts) in spots; and, overall, mild. I liked it.
After being solidly anchored to bed by flu for almost a week earlier this month and having at last recuperated, I found myself in some sort of a culinary limbo. I finally felt hungry for more than a bowl of dry cereal, but my mind’s mouth stayed persistently empty -- I didn’t know what I wanted. My usual standbys – eggplant stew, tomato curry, red lentil soup – failed to re-ignite me. Even chickpeas didn’t cut it for me, which made me particularly worried. If not chickpeas, what then? My imagination stalled, I randomly pulled an old issue of a Dutch food magazine from under a pile of books parked on the living room floor seeking inspiration in a language I barely understand but for recipes. Forcefully leafing through it, I came across a brief instruction for cauliflower ‘couscous’. And although I wasn’t quite sold on that recipe (raw cauliflower; not even a single sprig of fresh herb; too much lemon juice), the idea I loved. Upon my soul -- I felt some excitement! What an indigenous take on traditional ‘couscous’ as well as on cauliflower, don’t you think?
Who knew it would be cauliflower, the ‘curdle’ head, to snap me out of my post-flu blues and send me back to my kitchen eager again to try and tweak? It’s not going to be my vegetable of choice any time soon, but I would pay attention to it more often. Cauliflower has some aces up its sleeve. I’m willing to bet on it.
Yield: 4-6 servings
This is a minimalist recipe, basic, even. If you have a food processor, enlist its help to pulse the cauliflower. I don’t, so I chopped the stuff with a knife, which is, by far, the toughest part -- if you can call the chopping of cooked cauliflower tough, that is.
To my taste, preserved lemon peel is a show maker in this concoction. Its deep charged citrus-floral taste gives a fillip to the cauliflower, cuts through the vegetable’s grassiness. Beware not to overuse it though, otherwise the dish might taste bitter. If you can’t find preserved lemons – these can be found at a Middle Eastern grocery store – go with normal lemon zest instead. It’s not quite the same, but use enough salt and you’ll get to bring the light out of the whole lot.
I prefer cauliflower to be crisp-tender, but if you like it soft – go on and keep it longer on the fire. For this recipe, I’m using a large head of cauliflower, the one that would approximately amount to two and a half pounds. Tailor the seasonings to the size of cauliflower you have at hand – and to taste.
We had it on the side with pan-fried salmon, which we first cooled down to room temperature. That was good. Cold roasted chicken would be good too. Or roasted eggplant, if that is what you fancy.
1 large head cauliflower (about 2 ½ pounds or 1.2 kilo)
1 heaped tsp finely chopped preserved lemon peel (see Note below)
1 Tbsp lemon juice, or more to taste
2 Tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted
3 Tbsp fresh flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped
fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3-4 Tbsp good-quality olive oil
1. Fill a medium pot with water, add a good pinch of sea salt and bring to a boil.
2. Remove any leaves and cut off the tough stem of the cauliflower. Lop off the cauliflower florets. Place in the pot and cook for 5 minutes. Drain and let cool. Discard the stalks and chop the florets finely. The final result should resemble couscous grains, but it’s OK if there are pea-size (or even larger) cauliflower beads left here and there. If you use a food processor, pulse the cauliflower briefly. Don’t over work – or the cauliflower will run juices.
3. In a large bowl, mix the chopped cauliflower together with the rest of the ingredients. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Serve at room temperature.
Note: Using a sharp knife, slice the peel off a preserved lemon. Remove any pith. Cut the peel into thin strips and dice the strips finely. To get 1 heaped tsp, you will need the peel of slightly less than half a preserved lemon.