Vegetable Love

Cauliflower Risotto with Spicy Pangrattato 


As much as I pride myself on my broad culinary horizons, the truth of the matter is that I did not spring into existence with a perfectly formed palate. As a child, my list of dislikes was gargantuan: everything from beans to chicken to anything containing garlic was blacklisted at one time or another. The single greatest highlight of my young existence was a bland, soggy fast-food meal, and on a trip to New York City when I was eight, I amazed my parents by managing to locate a hamburger on the menu of each and every restaurant we dined in (and, perhaps more amazingly, never tired of them). My real nemesis, however – the thing that crept into my nightmares and caused me to wake up clammy and terrified – was vegetables. I loathed vegetables in every shape, size and color. The mere thought of raw tomatoes could make me gag, a face-to-face encounter with spinach left me feeling faint, and those little piles of limp broccoli I was forced to ingest before dessert negotiations could begin were as cruel a torture as my young mind could fathom. I hated all of them so much that I swore the first thing I would do when I was all grown up was to never touch a vegetable again (and presumably subsist on hamburgers for the rest of my life, but I don’t think I actually thought that part through).

Luckily, with maturity came more flexible tastebuds, and before too long beans and garlic and even far more exotic foods became regular interlopers on my plate. I was not quite as quick to make my peace with vegetables, but when I finally reached that age when I began to realize that other culinary attributes could be as important as taste (such as caloric value), I embraced vegetables with all the enthusiasm you reserve for those things you embrace because they’re good for you, not because they bring you any pleasure.

Then a few years later, just shy of my seventeenth birthday, I found myself in a peculiar position: as a vegetarian exchange student in Spain. Spain has been called one of the more difficult countries to avoid meat in, an assessment that may no longer be true but was certainly right on the mark in 1994. Lacking the pasta, the whole grains, the soy and tempeh and copious amounts of dairy my American diet had revolved around, I found myself left with a regimen of bread and vegetables. At home that might have been enough to make me reconsider carnivorism, but in Spain, contrary to all expectations, I thrived. Surprisingly, the variety of vegetables available was more or less the same as at home – maybe even slightly reduced – but under the deft touch of my Spanish host mother Clari, those familiar veggies took on new life. Some of them she sliced and fried crisp and light as air, while others she simmered or stewed until they were soft and succulent, liberally seasoned and drowned in garlic and olive oil. Even though they were always simple, earthy preparations, they were so novel to me, and so delicious, I felt like I could never get enough. I’ll never forget one of my first nights with my host family, when over a bowl of soft-as-silk cauliflower that had been buried under fistfuls of fried garlic and homemade mayonnaise, Clari turned to me and asked, ‘and how does your family prepare vegetables?’ When I told her we just steamed them or cut them into skinny sticks for dipping, she looked quite aghast. ‘That sounds kind of boring,’ she ventured, and it wasn’t hard for me to agree.

There were plenty of culinary epiphanies in store for me that year, but one of the greatest was what I learned about vegetables. Contrary to what I had grown up believing – that vegetables are the price you must pay for being healthy – in Spain, as in other countries around the Mediterranean, vegetables are not seen as penance but as celebration. Whether appearing in the fritters of Spain, the gratins of France, the mezze of Greece or the wonderful grain-based dishes of Italy, vegetables are revered for their inimitable spectrum of flavors, colors and textures. They are eaten fresh and in season or expertly preserved, and their innumerable preparations reflect the kind of no-nonsense ingenuity and imagination that centuries of poverty have inspired. While the now-well-known health benefits are recognized in these places too, it is essentially a bonus – first and foremost, vegetables are a pleasure.

As my parents are quick to remind me every chance they get, I’ve come a long way in the last twenty years. These days I’m not likely to turn up my nose at much of anything, and vegetables in one form or another find their way into most things I eat. But in all honesty, one thing really hasn’t changed – I still don’t want to eat vegetables just because they’re good for me. I want to eat them because they are delicious.


Cauliflower Risotto with Spicy Pangrattato 

I love, love, love this risotto – it truly reflects the genius of the Italians when it comes to vegetables. A whole head of cauliflower is melted into a pot of risotto, leaving behind no trace of its identity apart from a silkiness and subtle umami that many find hard to decipher. The other thing that sets this version apart from the usual is the crunchy, salty, spicy mixture of breadcrumbs, anchovies and chili that is showered over each serving, ‘kicking it up a notch’, if you will. Of course as in any risotto, the quality of your stock is key; now’s the time to break out the homemade article, or if that’s really not an option, source out the best your supermarket has to offer (but please, please don’t use bouillon cubes, unless your cubes come from some alternate universe where they’re actually good). Oh, and please do serve this risotto to your kids – though perhaps wait until they’ve downed their first enthusiastic forkful before telling them what’s in it.

Serves: 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side
Source: slightly adapted from Jamie’s Italy, by Jamie Oliver

two large handfuls breadcrumbs, from a slightly stale country loaf (about 1 cup, packed)

1 flat can anchovies in olive oil, undrained
pinch or two of hot chili flakes, or to taste

about 5-6 cups (1.25-1.5l) chicken stock
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2lbs/1kg)

6 tablespoons (90g) butter, divided
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups (400g) carnaroli or arborio rice
1 cup (250ml) dry vermouth or white wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
4 oz (115g/about 1 cup) freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
extra parmesan cheese, for serving

Combine the bread in a food processor with the anchovies, the oil from the can and the chili flakes and process to fine crumbs. Heat a frying pan with a splash of olive oil and sauté the crumbs over medium-high heat until browned and crispy. Set aside.

Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a large saucepan. Tear the green leaves off the cauliflower and cut out the stalk. Chop the stalk finely and cut the florets into 1-inch pieces. Drop the florets in the pan with the stock, bring to a gentle boil, and cover.

In another, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons butter and the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and reserved chopped cauliflower stalk and sauté until very tender, a
bout 15 minutes. Add the rice, stirring constantly to coat it with the oil. After about a minute the grains of rice should start to become translucent around the edges. Add the vermouth or wine, and stir constantly until it has been absorbed. Add a ladleful (about 1/2 cup) of the hot stock and a good pinch of salt, and again stir constantly until all the liquid is nearly absorbed before adding the next ladle of stock. Continue adding the stock bit by bit until the rice is about half cooked. By now the cauliflower florets should be very soft (this is important, so take the rice off the heat for a couple minutes if they’re not yet there). Start adding the florets in with the stock, crushing them into the rice as you go. Continue until the rice is cooked but still retains a gentle bite and the cauliflower has all been added. This should take about 18-20 minutes in total; if you find you run out of broth before the rice is cooked, add a bit of boiling water. The finished risotto should be pourable but not soupy; all’onda in Italian.

As soon as the rice is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the rosemary, parmesan cheese and remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Cover the pan and let it sit undisturbed for 2 minutes (not longer or it will thicken too much). Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately in shallow bowls, topped with the crunchy pangrattato and additional parmesan.


38 thoughts on “Vegetable Love

  1. Melissa; That was a lovely post and made me want to run out tomorrow and buy a cauliflower (hey…that give me an idea…) I’m definately going to give it a try, and yes, I say no to those bouillon cubes too.

  2. This sounds utterly amazing. I recently discovered cauliflower and am always looking for new ways to use it. My husband is a huge fan of cauliflower but not risotto, so this could be a way to get him to change his mind about the creamy rice dish.

  3. While I wasn’t a vegetarian during my Spanish exchange-student days, your post made me think about what I ate. Indeed, vegetables were a large part of the diet, but like you said, so tasty I didn’t even think about it. Actually, my host mother would make hamburgers for me every two weeks or so (because I was American), and I always dreaded it because they were so awful. This dish sounds amazing. Cauliflower is in such abundance now and risotto is such a comforting dish on these cold days. I can’t wait to try it!

  4. Errrr – how did I entirely miss this dish whilst going through Jamie’s Italy obsessively over the past few weeks? Thanks for bringing my attention to it.I can’t wait to try this!

  5. What a lovely write-up about vegetables! Makes me smile. Now, the truth is just I almost never never buy cauliflower! Just do not know why! So I am now tempted to get one to try this recipe. A good excuse, very good indeed.

  6. Oh Melissa, you’re hitting all the right buttons with this one. I LOVE cauliflower, and the thought of cauliflower in risotto, with lots of garlic and parmesan – well, oh my. I’ve been hearing so many great things lately about Jamie’s Italy. Now it looks like I’ll just have to go buy it – and some arborio rice too.

  7. I’d love to make this sometime, but I’m a current vegetarian. Any ideas on an anchovy substitute?

  8. This seems amazing. It’s so original! I just had cauliflower last night for the first time in years! And that was because a well known food company started making a microwavable "steam it" version of cauliflower and garlic.It’s a same we American’s don’t spend more time on our veggies. Unless it’s a salad, my entire life has usually it’s out of the can or the box from the freezer section. When we got really fancy we sauteed some up with garlic or maybe even bread crumbs.

  9. It sounds utterly delicious – anchovies and cauliflower is one of my favorite combos – hmm, maybe a little fried caper on there too… You got me thinking! Thanks for posting Melissa…

  10. Sounds delicious, Melissa, and I really like the picture. Interesting to read about your exchange student year in Spain and how that influenced your taste preferences. I was an exchange student in Denmark, and that broadened my culinary horizons, and turned me from never-eat-anything-with-onions-in-it into someone who regularly bakes onion quiches nowadays:9

  11. Thanks, MasPinaSarap!Jeff – White devil flour? That’s a new one on me. How about this: think of this as braising it with rice and garlic ;)David – I must admit to using those bouillon cubes sometimes (okay, frequently), but one dish where I draw the line is risotto. If I’m going to stand and stir for half an hour I want the results to be worth it!Home Cook – If you ask me, you have the battle already won πŸ™‚ Normally it’s getting people to like the cauliflower that’s the hard part…Lisa, that’s so interesting that you were a Spanish exchange student too! I had no idea. You’ll have to tell me more about it, one of these days. And so funny about the hamburgers – I guess I avoided that fate by being vegetarian! ;)Luisa, this was actually one of the first recipes that caught my eye and it’s been on my to-cook list for ages. It was actually reading your review of Jamie’s eggplant parmesan that compelled me to finally do it!Bea, there seem to be a lot of people who don’t get excited by cauliflower, which I’ve never understood – I love to think of it as a lighter, creamier substitute for potatoes — with a pungent edge. Maybe you just needed to find the right recipe! :)Molly – I know I’m not one to dole out advice on buying more cookbooks, but this book is really a gem. I bought it shortly after it came out in the UK because I had watched the program on TV, but I kind of assumed it would be more or less fluff. Needless to say, it isn’t, in any sense of the word. I know the last thing I needed was another Italian cookbook, but I find myself turning to this one probably more than any other!Almost vegetarian – chilly is right! The weather in Edinburgh has been abysmal, and I’ve been hunting high and low for recipes that give some warmth and comfort but don’t blow the new year’s diet plans all to smithereens. This one really fit the bill well. :)Thanks, Kat !Katharine, both excellent choices, if I do say so myself! Please let me know how you like them.Tanya – I wouldn’t worry too much about the anchovies. You could certainly leave them out, substituting a couple tablespoons of olive oil and some extra salt, and maybe throwing in a couple cloves of garlic to round out the flavor?Rachel, I know, it’s so easy to get in vegetable ruts! I have been trying to shake myself out of one lately. It’s so frustrating to know we can do better, but just not have the time or motivation to change old habits. Ah well, one dish at a time, I suppose :)Zarah Maria – Fried capers, mmm. Sounds like a winner! I was actually wondering how I could incorporate some currants or sultanas, as that’s another thing I love with fried cauliflower. And David recommended adding some pancetta to the risotto, which also sounds delicious. So many options!Pille – Hard to imagine you used to never eat onions! I certainly agree that an exchange year can have a profound effect on more than just linguistic abilities – I certainly hope my own kids will choose to do it someday, though hopefully I’ll manage to give them a taste for vegetables before that… πŸ˜‰

  12. I just found your website via Garance’s food blog and I just love it! Your pictures are great and I will, for sure, try some of the recipes I’ve seen so far here in a near future.Karine

  13. Wow! Great recipe and a very nice read. I have made a passable cauliflower risotto before, but the addition of the Spicy Pangrattato is going to force me back to the stove. It was the anchovies that peaked my interest. Thank you so much.

  14. Hi, I saw that our Jamie Oliver posts were both listed on today’s Blogher site… So glad to have read your story about veg evolution & your time in Spain! I was born into a midwestern family that escaped to upstate NY, but the only vegetable I ever relished eating while growing up was freshly shucked corn, for me the epitamy of eating locally & seasonally in Niskayuna–Iroquois for "land of the corn." Thank goodness for the people we meet along the road that taught us that cauliflower can have a delicious soulfulness.

  15. Hi, I’m discovering your blog thanks to La Tartine Gourmande and I really like it ! Who says veggie food is boring should read your post, it’s really well written. As a French who lived for some years in Morroco with a mum who loves vegetables, I recognize myself in a way (I used to hate zucchinis, now I love to cook them, for instance). The risotto looks delicious, it reminds me of a combination I adore: rice, brocolis and fish (like salmon). I’ll have to try it !

  16. Why is cauliflower so addictive in the winter? I’m slowly working my way through the Jamie Oliver cookbook and love to find a recipe already tested for me. I hope too my children will at least try a bite–although if they can’t recognize it, they usually reject it.

  17. I will definitevely print this and translate it to my boyfriend who only eats THREE vegetables: carrots, lettuce and tomatoes and I love greens and vegetables…Lovely picture as well, congrats!

  18. This is going to send me back to risotto for a another shot. I have always enjoyed risotto in restaurants,and other people’s houses, but I’ve been very lazy about making it at home. I’m not sure why, I generally kind of enjoy hovering over food…but I’ve only made it myself once or twice. This risotto is entirely composed of things I adore- I just have to have some, and there’s a cauliflower in my fridge. I hope I’ve got some risotto-worthy rice in the house. Your story rings a bell with me. I’ve always been an omnivore myself, but my daughter-now a creative vegetarian cook, used to scorn all vegs, unless served raw and crunchy. Children often have hypersensitive palates, I think.

  19. Beautiful and delicious looking as always. I’m often on the look out for new ways to prepare vegetables for the young princess Ceilidh Maeve that she won’t wrinkle her pretty princess nose at. Sauteed with "magic herbs to make her eyes sparkle even brighter" works occasionally – and I may have one of the few nine year olds in the area that knows what a roasted parsnip is, let alone likes the taste of them. The risotto probably won’t work for her, but I think her mom and I could probably figure something out.Cheers – Corey

  20. Love the photos.Grate blog!I will have to try this. Never tryed cauliflower and vermouth wine together in rise dish but it sounds really intriguing.

  21. Hi, Melissa,Isn’t it wonderful how we learn to appreciate and enjoy good things in life – including food – as we grow old? :DThis risotto is already tagged – risotto is my favorite food in the whole world and I always want to try new recipes.Tks for sharing.P.S.: your blog is so beautiful!

  22. I have Jamie’s Italy and it’s been buried along with my other books – thank you for reminding me of it’s existence! I remember browsing that book when i received it 2 christmas ago. That long… naughty me!Your risotto looks and sounds fabulous. What sold it to me is the sound of crunchy, salty and spicy topping. Not to mention, your stunning photo! Mmmmm… anchovies.

  23. Hi Karine, welcome and thank you!Eric – Anchovies and cauliflower are a match made in heaven, if you’ve never tried them together. A really simple thing I do sometimes is saute pieces of cauliflower with garlic, chopped anchovy and olive oil until browned and crispy around the edges, and then sprinkle it with capers and/or lemon juice. Yum!Ms.Proust – You know, in all honesty I should have added the addendum that I hated all vegetables as a child except for corn on the cob. Somehow I suspect there are lots of kids that find it easy to forget that fresh corn is a ‘vegetable’ when it is sitting on a plate in front of them, dripping with butter and sweet, sweet juices!Hi Adeline, thank you! I’m not one bit surprised to hear that Morocco was the source of your vegetable awakening. Some of my favorite ways of preparing vegetables have come from Moroccan recipes – they seem to have the magic touch that both preserves and enhances their best qualities.Brandon, I hope your children will give this the benefit of the doubt! I think I would have liked it as a kid, and I was as picky as they come. But yes, isn’t Jamie’s Italy a wonderful book? He offers such fresh perspectives on familiar ingredients.Sil, that is both funny and tragic – only three vegetables? I have my fingers crossed that you’ll be able to knock some sense into him with a bite of cauliflower risotto. In my experience, the people who say they don’t like vegetables just haven’t tried them in the right forms!Lindy, I suppose you’re right about those hypersensitive palates. But plenty of junk food has strong flavors as well, so what is it in the brain’s wiring that tells kids one strong flavor is good while another one is bad? And please, do give risotto another shot. The more you do it the easier it gets! ;)Hi Corey, thank you! And I wish you luck with princess Ceilidh. She sounds considerably more open-minded than I was at her age, so probably before you know it she’ll be wrinkling her nose at very little.Hi home cook, I had never tried it like this before either, but it is really good. I hope you agree!Patricia – Well said. And thank you :)Ankita, thank you!Lara, do let me know what you think!Mae – I know, I’ve had it nearly that long too and I’ve only recently dug it out and started using it, primarily because US bloggers started raving about it. And I’m so glad to hear you’re a fellow anchovy fan! πŸ˜‰

  24. I made this for my family for dinner tonight and it was delicious! At first it seemed like more of an undertaking than regular cheese risotto, but it turned out to be very simple, and I’m so glad I made the pangrattato! The contrast of the velvety cauliflower and the scent of rosemary went amazingly good with that spicy, crunchy mixture. Plus the cauliflower really bulked up the risotto, so we can have the leftovers for lunch tomorrow.Tragically my ‘kid’ (little sister) didn’t touch hers, but I’m going to try and make it for her again. Something like this seems the best way to get her to eat vegetables :)Thank you for a sucessful weeknight meal, Melissa! πŸ˜€

  25. hi melissa, this sounds like the best kind of comfort food, best served out of a (very large) bowl and eaten with nothing but a spoon! and as always, i really enjoyed the bit of backstory too πŸ˜‰

  26. Oh foo! The sadness.. I love cauliflower, but am actually allergic to it, and really supposed to not eat it.. But I love it, and this recipe sounds so yum! *sigh* Any suggestions on a possible cauliflower substitute? Somehow, cauliflower can stand in for potatoes, but the reverse never seems to be quite as true.. 😦

  27. How lovely! I just made my first cauliflower risotto last week, but would have loved to have tried the Pangrattato. I’ll definitely try it next time. Thanks for your beautiful blog! – sara

  28. Hi – Jamie’s Italy is the only cookbook (of the many that I own ) that I have read cover to cover. It’s a fantastic read and the pictures are gorgeous and have me wishing time would hurry up as we leave for Italy in May. I made his version of the cauliflower risotto for my (Italian) inlaws on Sunday. They loved, loved, LOVED it. My 84 year old mother in law emailed me (yes, she emails!) for the recipe today. One thing – if you have a non stick pan, it sure cuts down on the ‘worrying’ time. Bon Appetit!

  29. Oh my goodness! This is delicious! My husband was puzzled (and delighted, he the curmudgeon) by a fragrance of seafood with each bite. When I finally told him about the anchovies, he laughed and smiled and kept on eating – the recipe makes quite a bit, and he went on for seconds. It probably helps that we both like cauliflower, which is why I made this, but it was far past that. Wow.

  30. Just wanted to thank you — I made this recipe last night and it was stupendous! Amazing! Soooooo good! You are right that the pangrattato totally takes it over the top. Keep up the great food blogging work!

  31. I made this the other day. It was very good but made a lot more risotto than four of us could eat during one meal. I reheated the leftovers a couple of days later, adding some saffron for a change of pace. It was very good that way too, though I topped the leftovers with parm. cheese rather than with the pangratto.

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