As a child I was obsessed with cauliflower. It was this rare and somehow special and magical vegetable that would come in the fall and will be around for a little bit and then it will disappear, in the same magical way as it appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. I never heard of anyone growing cauliflower, my family didn’t grow cauliflower, I didn’t see any crops of cauliflower and then, boom – out of nowhere, cauliflower shows up at the farmers market for a few days and then it will be gone. How strangely magical I thought. How I loved the cauliflower crunchiness. And how I wanted to eat it all the time. As you are reading this, perhaps you might be thinking that this itself it the strangest story ever, especially if you live in the United States and cauliflower is available all year around and it is as common as bagged lettuce. But you see, it was not like that in Bulgaria when I was a kid. I would only see cauliflower in the fall when my father would bring it home, from the market, in big plastic bags He will then wash it and separate the flowerets, sitting on his chair by the kitchen sink whistling to some traditional Bulgarian song (or a German marching song!), piling the cauliflower florets in a big bowl and happily popping some of them in his mouth. I remember standing by him, all mesmerized by this strange, flower-shaped vegetable and impatiently waiting for him to hand me a floret or a center of a cauliflower stem so I can taste this crunchy, nutty and cabaggelike goodness. I thought that this was the coolest vegetable ever and I couldn’t wait for my father to finish making the winter Giardiniera – the only way I remember Bulgarians from my childhood eating cauliflower.
Then I moved to United States, to what it seemed to me, to be the cauliflower paradise. Cauliflower everywhere. And all the time! Then I tried some of the conventional (or shall we say, food industry) ways of eating cauliflower; boiled, steamed, tasteless and mushy, and I thought to myself that Bulgarians might have been right all along, that the only way to enjoy cauliflower is in the fall and only marinated in Giardiniera. And my love affair with this vegetable started to slowly fall apart, with the exception of occasional cream of cauliflower soup or cauliflower mash. Then, one day, at a restaurant, whose name I don’t remember, I had a warm cauliflower side dish and I was blown away. The cauliflower was cooked, but not over-cooked, and it was deliciously nutty and semi-crunchy, slightly charred and tossed with lemon rind and Parmesan. I ate the whole thing. And I kept thinking about this cauliflower in the days to follow and I was on a mission to recreate the dish. Night after night I will cook and eat cauliflower, until I got the recipe to my taste. And in the process of the eating and cooking and eating, eating, eating my beloved cauliflower and I got reunited.
I took notes of the cauliflower as I remembered it and I have adapted and changed the recipe over time to my taste. I don’t grill the cauliflower (simply because I don’t have a grill) and to achieve its smoky blackened exterior, I cook it in a nicely heated pan where at the end I add a teaspoon of smoked mushroom butter. If you like your cauliflower softer and especially if you have to make it for a large crowd, pop it in the oven on a baking sheet at 425F for 30 min. It still would be quite delicious.
As people say – true love never dies. So go into your kitchen, pour yourself a glass of wine and make something that you love with all of your heart.
Serves 4 (as a side dish)
• 1 lemon
• 1 tsp butter
• 1 tbsp Panko bread crumbs
• 4 tbsp olive oil
• 1 small cauliflower, torn or cut in 1-inch florets
• 1 tsp salt
• 1 tsp red pepper flakes
• 1 tbsp smoked mushroom butter (or 1 tsp smoked paprika)
• 1 tbsp Za’atar spice (recipe below) (or store bought)
• 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
• 2 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
Combine 1 tbsp toasted sesame seeds, 1 tbsp fresh (or dry) thyme leaves and 1 tbsp sumac. Store in an airtight container (if the thyme is fresh let the container open for 2-3 days so the thyme dries).
Grate and juice the lemon, place in separate bowls and set aside.
Melt the plain butter in a large non-stick pan, add the bread crumbs and toast until golden-brown, about 30 sec. Set aside in a bowl.
Return the non-stick skillet to the stove, heat it very well on high heat. When nice and hot, add the olive oil, the cauliflower and the salt. Stir well to coat the florets evenly, lower the heat to a medium-high and cook for 2-3 minutes until golden brown without disturbing. Turn (or stir) the florets on the other side and cook for additional 2-3 minutes, until nice and brown (the more charred on the sides tastier they will be). Add the red pepper flakes and the smoked butter (or smoked paprika) and cook for additional minute.
Place the cooked cauliflower in a large bowl, add the lemon zest, half of the lemon juice, the Za’atar spice, bread crumbs, Parmesan and the parsley. Mix well to combine. Taste and add more lemon juice, Za’atar spice or seasoning if needed.
Plate and enjoy.
Tip: This is a wonderful side to poached eggs or roasted chicken. Make a rice bowl of it by adding cooked grains, avocado, tomatoes, sliced cucumbers and a spoonful of yogurt tahini.