Q: I think I remember you saying that you bake whole cauliflower in olive oil in the oven - can you please tell me the how?
Many thanks, Linda
A: A few years back I was travelling in Israel with my cheffy author friend Yotam Ottolenghi (he of the shared whitebait pizza fame from last week's column) and we ate ourselves stupid around his native homeland. It seemed to be one memorable meal after another from the simplicity of freshly made warm hummus and raw white onion, through to almond and raisin stuffed lamb's neck in an Arab village. One meal, among so many memorable ones, was at a restaurant that a friend of his was cheffing in called North Abraxas (40 Lilenblum St, Tel Aviv). The food was fabulous in many ways, a little clever here and there without being so clever it forgot it was food. The kitchen is headed by Eyal Shani, quite a big name in Israel.
The meal consisted of many tasty things from blue crabs cooked in tomato butter and pounded fresh corn polenta with a cheesy topping through to a strange peach marmalade with creme patisserie which definitely tasted far superior to how it looked. However, it was the whole roast cauliflower that was the most memorable of the dishes that night. I've often roasted florets of cauliflower tossed with olive oil, herbs and olives (in fact there's a recipe for them in my latest book, Everyday) but I'd never seen such a simple, fabulous way of treating this misunderstood brassica. What the kitchen had done was to remove the green leaves and trimmed the stalk, keeping it whole however. It was steamed until cooked, then roasted in a fiercely hot oven, ideally a wood-fired oven, until golden and tender. It was served wrapped in baking paper with a spoon - which at first I couldn't understand as I'd not eaten a cauliflower on its own before, nor with a spoon as though it were a mousse. However, we peeled the paper back and the golden cauliflower was easily scooped out and eaten. It was delicious in that way that only a freshly harvested cauliflower can be.
This is very easy to do yourself and it only requires a cauliflower, a pot or steamer large enough to hold the curd (as the head is called) and a very hot oven. I've cooked it at home many times and always guests are really interested in the concept. I usually make a pesto or dressing to serve drizzled over it at the table, and because cauliflowers are available year-round they can be cooked and served with a huge variety of flavours and spices.
Some favourites, apart from the two mentioned above, are a raw summer salad made from thinly sliced (I use a super-sharp knife or mandolin) cauliflower tossed with lemon juice, sunflower and hazelnut oils, crushed toasted hazelnuts, picked parsley and crumbled feta cheese - just make sure you toss it all together at the last minute so the cauliflower retains its crunch.
I love cauliflower cheese as much as the next person, making sure the cauliflower isn't cooked so much it loses all its bite, and I flavour the cheese sauce with a little smoked paprika that I saute with chopped rosemary and garlic. A smooth cauliflower soup enriched with beaten egg yolks and yoghurt at the end is delicious, especially if the soup also contains a handful of split peas and fresh thyme.
Roasting chicken legs, separating thigh and leg, is all the better with large florets of cauli tossed in along with plenty of fresh herbs and slivers of garlic, and a puree of slowly simmered cauli, cream, ginger and sage is delicious served with crispy skinned pork.
Actually, as I type this in London with winter now well and truly with us, I think I might just have to knock up a cauliflower cheese for dinner tomorrow.
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