Braaaaaaaaaaaaains

No, alas–I didn’t actually eat brains.

(But if anyone can hook me up with some non-Creutzfeld-Jacobs-infected ones, you know where to find me).

What I did eat, and what has me in unexpected rhapsodies, is cauliflower.  A whole head of cauliflower, cooked through and presented in a pool of tomato sauce.  (And if that doesn’t bring brains to mind then your imagination is sadly lacking).

When I was younger, my mother used to make whole steamed heads of cauliflower and serve them coated in cheese sauce.  The dish was delicious and I enjoyed it, but for some reason it never occurred to me to make it for myself.  A few months ago, though, I read a recipe for a head of cauliflower, steamed, and then left to marinate for a few hours in a mixture of giardinera, pickled peppers, and olives.  The marinade wasn’t the best–due, I think, not to the recipe, but to the giardinera, which was a little elderly–but it was so much fun to present an entire head of cauliflower on a platter that I knew I had to do it again.

(Actually, it was two heads of cauliflower.  The farmer’s markets were open at the time and I lucked into finding two tiny, 12-oz heads of cauliflower, each perfect for a single serving.  But nevertheless). 

I’ve served whole cauliflower several times since then, usually in a vinaigrette, either cold or hot, and once sauced with pesto.  But for the last few months, I’ve been neglecting cauliflower; with all the kale and radicchio and sweet potatoes in stores, tumbled into overabundant piles, it was difficult to remember cauliflower, which is usually plastic-wrapped and relegated to the peripheral refrigerated shelves.

As so often is the case, last week I read a new cookbook.  And as is also so often the case, I was captivated by one particular recipe: one for a whole head of cauliflower, tucked into a pot full of tomato sauce and steamed/simmered until done.  I immediately scribbled the word ‘cauliflower’ down onto my shopping list.

When time came to make the dish, I was more rushed for time than I had hoped.  Instead of making a puttanesca-like tomato sauce from scratch, as the recipe indicated, I poured a jar of very good quality arrabiata sauce into my littlest, cauliflower-sized stockpot.  I brought the sauce to a boil and then nestled the cauliflower, divested of its leaves and the discolored portion of the stem, down into the sauce, which came about halfway up its sides. 

I put the lid on, turned the heat down until the sauce was simmering, and then left it alone for 50 minutes.  At the end of its time alone, the cauliflower had turned a nearly translucent shade of cream, a subtle but important change from the dull, aggressive white it had been before.  When I poked it with a knife to check its doneness, the blade slid in all the way to the hilt.  I carefully lifted the head out with my largest spatula and transferred it to a serving bowl, surrounding it with the tomato sauce.

After I presented the bowl to Teacherman’s oohs and ahhs (and zombie references), we neatly bisected the head and dished it out into shallow bowls, ladling tomato sauce over the top of each portion. 

Our forks encountered almost no resistance as we each separated our first bite, and the texture followed through on that promise of tenderness.  In fact, the texture was astonishing.  The cauliflower was whole, and when sliced or cut it remained in perfect shape, with intact florets and all; in the mouth, though, the texture was that of whipped cauliflower, so silken that it nearly dissolved on the tongue, but still remained toothsome. 

The tender porousness of the cauliflower was the perfect foil for the tomato sauce–cauliflower by itself can be a little bland, and the sauce infused the entire head with its spiciness and tomatoy depths.  Together they produced an illusion of creaminess that surpassed any other method of cooking cauliflower that I’ve tried, including cooking it in cream. 

I’ll be making this dish often; I daresay I won’t even forget about cauliflower again.  I just need to find all sorts of different sauces to steam the cauliflower in. . . .

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Published in: on January 7, 2008 at 8:59 pm  Leave a Comment  

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