If there's one thing lockdown gave most of us, it's zips that won't easily do up any more. All that baking and cooking and snacking has now attached itself firmly to our hips and thighs. The worst of it, this is just the start of winter. Not the end.
A craving for carbs is inevitable as the weather cools down. You can blame our early ancestors for this, back in times when avoiding starvation was a key survival factor. When there's always a chance of a famine around the corner you need to have reserves backed up to stay alive. Without the capacity to store energy in the form of fat, we would have been unlikely to survive millions of years of evolution. Surplus stored fat was also protective through the colder seasons when there was less to eat and more chance of getting sick.
Winter's shorter daylight hours also contribute to our increased desire for carbs. Less sunlight means less serotonin, which makes us both tired and hungry. Carbs provide a simple fix— sugar — which gives our bodies more energy. They also support the production of serotonin, which improves moods.
However, knowing all this doesn't solve the problem of getting your jean zip done up. Enter the cauliflower, the ultimate carb imposter. Cauliflower contains a mere 25 calories a cup — it's high in fibre so promotes feelings of fullness and makes you feel satisfied for longer. You can substitute it for rice (finely mince either raw or lightly blanched cauliflower florets) or for mashed potatoes (simmer in milk, drain and puree with a hand wand blender with a little salt and pepper and a drizzle of olive oil or a small knob of butter). You can cut thick cauliflower steaks and barbecue them to golden caramelised sweetness (I blanch mine first).
You can even make a lookalike beef ragu to toss through spaghetti, a recipe that features in Joshua McFadden's award–winning cookbook Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables. I make a variation of this "fake meat" ragu by sauteing garlic, onion, chilli and small cauliflower florets, then when the onion is clear, adding a splash of white wine and a can of tomatoes, a little rosemary and oregano, then simmering until the mixture looks like a thick, meaty pasta sauce. (McFadden's recipe cooks the cauliflower in two stages and doesn't add tomatoes.) At the end I mix in lots of grated parmesan, loosen the sauce with a little of the pasta cooking water and toss it through al dente cooked spaghetti with lots of Italian parsley. Blindfold people and they won't believe it's not made with meat.
Here are some simple recipes that solve the jeans-zipping problem and assuage your desire for a carb fix.
Herbed Cauliflower Couscous
Ready in 20 mins
If you don't have a food processor, you can just grate the cauliflower to a fine crumb consistency. If you don't have a mandolin, use a vegetable peeler or a very sharp knife to slice the other vegetables super-thinly.
1 cauliflower, trimmed and cut into florets
½ tsp salt, plus extra to season
½ cup coarsely chopped coriander leaves
1 spring onion, thinly sliced
Zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 Tbsp lemon juice
2 Tbsp boutique extra virgin olive oil
Ground black pepper, to taste
3 small beetroot, peeled and thinly sliced on a mandolin
3 radishes, thinly sliced on a mandolin
2 zucchini, thinly sliced on a mandolin
½ cup roasted almonds, coarsely chopped
1 cup Greek yoghurt
¼ cup pesto or ½ cup finely chopped parsley or basil
To make the herbed yoghurt, mix yoghurt, pesto or herbs and salt in a small bowl. Set aside. Place cauliflower and salt in a bowl and cover with boiling water. Leave to stand for 3 minutes. Drain using a sieve, rinse under cold water and drain well again. Place in a food processor with the coriander and pulse several times to a fine crumb. Don't overdo it or you will end up with a paste. Transfer the cauliflower mixture back to the bowl and add spring onion, lemon zest and juice and olive oil. Season to taste and toss to combine.Transfer to a serving platter and top with beetroot, radish and zucchini. Sprinkle with almonds and serve with the yoghurt.
Ready in 50 mins
Makes 2 medium pizzas
Who would have thought you could make a pizza base from cauliflower? Maybe not quite as crisp and crunchy as a base made with flour but it sure is delicious. Top with a traditional tomato-based sauce, cheese and other pizza toppings if you prefer.
3 handfuls baby spinach leaves
2 cups very small broccoli florets
1 small clove garlic, crushed with ½ tsp salt
Zest of ½ lemon, finely grated
½ cup ricotta
¼ cup grated parmesan
¼ cup grated mozzarella
2 Tbsp pumpkin seeds
Pinch of chilli flakes
Ground black pepper, to taste
Cauliflower Pizza Base
1 cauliflower, leaves and central stalk removed, cut into smallish chunks (end weight should be about 500g)
½ cup ground almonds (approx)
½ cup coarsely grated parmesan
1 tsp salt
Preheat oven to 200C fanbake and line 2 oven trays with baking paper. To make the pizza bases, whizz cauliflower in a food processor to a fine couscous-like texture — don't blend until it's like a paste, it shouldn't stick together. Transfer to a mixing bowl with all remaining base ingredients and mix to combine. It should hold together when pressed — if not, add more ground almonds. Divide cauliflower mixture between trays and press each out into a flat disc, about 25cm diameter and 5mm thick. Bake until lightly golden and fully set (about 25 minutes). Reduce oven temperature to 180C fanbake.
While the bases are cooking, make the topping. Place spinach in a colander, pour over boiling water to wilt, then rinse under cold water. Squeeze to remove as much moisture as possible. Place broccoli in a bowl, cover with boiling water, stand for 1 minute, then drain well. Mix garlic, lemon zest and ricotta. Divide between cooked bases, spreading out evenly and leaving a 1cm clear border. Arrange spinach and broccoli over the top, then scatter with parmesan, mozzarella and pumpkin seeds. Sprinkle with chilli flakes and pepper. Return pizzas to 180C oven and bake until toppings are bubbling and starting to caramelise (about 10 minutes).
Cauliflower Chickpea and Feta Bowl
Prep 25 mins, cook 15 mins
This is fabulous with any kind of slow-bake or stew and means you don't need any potatoes.
½ green or white cauliflower, cut into florets
8 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
2 red onions, halved and thinly sliced
4 spring onions, white and green separated and very finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 long red chilli, deseeded and angle-sliced very finely
Juice and zest of 1 lemon, finely grated
2 x 400g cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 cup finely chopped parsley leaves
150g creamy feta, finely crumbled
Preheat oven to 180C fanbake and line an oven dish with baking paper for easy clean-up. Place the cauliflower florets in the dish, drizzle with 2 Tbsp of the oil and season with salt and pepper. Roast until the cauliflower starts to brown (about 15 minutes). While the cauliflower is roasting, heat remaining oil in a frypan and fry red onion and whites of spring onions over a medium-low heat until softened but not browned (8 minutes).
Add garlic, chilli and lemon zest and cook until the mix smells aromatic (another minute). Add chickpeas and cook for 1-2 minutes to infuse the flavours. Remove from heat and set aside to cool with the cauliflower. The salad can be prepared to this point several hours ahead of serving. To serve, combine cauliflower and chickpea mixture in a large bowl. Stir through lemon juice, spring onion greens, parsley and feta. Season to taste and serve.