Born-Again Vegetable Boiling

Soft-as-Silk Cauliflower with Crispy Garlic and Anchovy-Caper Mayonnaise

I suspect today’s recipe is going to be a hard sell.

It offers no exotic ingredients, unusual spices or trendy cooking methods à la sous vide. It contains no pasta, cheese or chocolate, and hasn’t been culled from the pages of the latest celebrity food tome. It’s not even very visually appealing, essentially consisting of various shades of beige. And it that weren’t bad enough, the things it does feature are firmly entrenched at the top of many people’s ‘most-detested’ lists: anchovies, mayonnaise, cauliflower, and a pot of boiling water as the main cooking medium.

Before you click away in horror, though, I implore you to hear me out. As unpromising as this sounds, these humble components together are responsible for one of the most delicious meals I’ve eaten in months. Yes, months. We ate it for dinner four nights ago, and again last night. And I’m telling you, I’d make it again tonight if I had the ingredients in the house.

It started, actually, with a Proustian moment. I was sautéing garlic in olive oil a week or so ago when out of nowhere a long-buried memory of a dish I hadn’t eaten in seventeen years bubbled to the surface, and suddenly, I could think of nothing else.

The dish in question was a simple cauliflower preparation my host mother Clari used to make during the year I lived in Spain. I’ve mentioned before that she was a great cook, and she was, though in my youthful ignorance I didn’t always appreciate her food as much as I should have. This dish was a case in point.

You see, she tended to prepare vegetables in one of two ways: fried or boiled. The ones that could be easily sliced were floured and fried. Everything else was boiled until it had nearly disintegrated, then dressed with a slick of olive oil in which a clove or two of garlic had been crisped. It doesn’t sound very delicious, but it actually was, since she wasn’t shy with the amount of salt she used in the boiling water nor the quantity of oil she slipped over the top just before serving.

The most delicious of all was her cauliflower. This she would simmer until it was so soft it almost melted onto your tongue, and like her other boiled fare it was showered with copious amounts of garlic-flecked oil. The coup de grâce for this vegetable, though, was the dish of thick homemade mayonnaise she served alongside, a dollop of which turned a plate of what could have been the drabbest of vegetables into something scandalously decadent.

The problem was that I was scandalized. After all, that this was the 90s and I was a teenager. Fat in all its forms was the dietary devil, and regardless of how good Clari’s vegetables tasted, I could not wrap my head around eating them drenched in the stuff. To my mind oil was something that should be used in the smallest quantities necessary to lubricate a pan before sautéing, and mayonnaise (which in my US house was consumed in its ‘light’ variety only) belonged spread as thinly as possible on one side of a sandwich. I couldn’t conceive of either of these being used as a sauce, for heaven’s sake, and as a result I ate her vegetables with as much restraint as I could muster (and made up the difference with lots of bread—is it any wonder the scale still inched steadily upwards?). When I finally left Spain, a couple dozen pounds heavier than when I’d arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief and thanked the heavens I’d finally be able to eat my vegetables in low-fat, appropriately virtuous preparations again.

Fast forward seventeen years. Luckily with age comes wisdom, and I’ve now made friends with fat in most of its forms, as well as come to the realization that perhaps Clari had the right idea all along: vegetables deserve to taste good, even if it means they’re a little less virtuous. Still, though, I never once found myself tempted to fill my biggest pot with water and toss in the contents of my crisper drawer. My logic was this: why boil when you can roast, grill, sauté, braise or stew?

Not anymore. Thanks to a chance craving for a long-forgotten plate of cauliflower, I’m officially a born-again vegetable boiler. Well, at least where this dish is concerned, and once you try I can all but guarantee you’ll be too. It takes Clari’s humble preparation and does it one better, pairing the silky, slurpy cauliflower with a punchy anchovy-caper mayonnaise so good I have to fight the urge to spoon it straight into my mouth while the cauliflower cooks. It’s worth resisting the urge, though, because it’s in the contrasts that the dish’s magic happens: hot and cold, crunchy and soft, bland and sharp, lean and rich. And what I love best is how its sheer deliciousness is completely at odds with the effort involved to make it—particularly if you enjoy it like we do as a one-dish meal with nothing but a loaf of a good crusty bread alongside, from start to finish you’ll have clocked up less than half an hour. What sous-vide recipe can you say that about?

Soft-as-Silk Cauliflower with Crispy Garlic and Anchovy-Caper Mayonnaise

If you were so inclined, you could probably cut up to half the mayonnaise with something a little leaner, such as sour cream. Don’t try to make it too healthy, though, or you’ll miss the contrasts that make this dish so sublime. Oh, and if those anchovies are scaring you off, don’t let them: they’re not fishy at all in this form, just pure umami. That said, for an anchovy-free option you might try a little miso instead.
Serves: 2 as a main course, or a couple more as a side dish

1 large head cauliflower, separated into bite-sized florets
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
2 fat cloves garlic, thinly sliced

for mayonnaise:
1/2 cup (125ml) mayonnaise
1 tablespoon olive oil
2-3 oil-packed anchovy filets
2 tablespoons capers in brine, drained
squeeze of lemon juice

chopped parsley, for garnish (optional, for a bit of color)

For the mayonnaise, combine all the ingredients in a bowl and blitz with a hand blender until more or less smooth (or use a mini chopper, or even a regular blender). Adjust the lemon to taste. Set aside to let the flavors mingle.

Combine the cauliflower, 2 quarts (liters) water and 2 tablespoons salt in a pot and bring to a boil. Cover, turn down the heat and let bubble away until the cauliflower has lost all trace of firmness and a fork slides into even the largest piece without resistance, but before it’s started to disintegrate (although slightly disintegrated is better than too firm in this instance). This will probably take 15-20 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a small skillet over medium heat and gently fry the garlic, stirring often, until pale gold. Remove from the heat.

When the cauliflower is done, drain well and divide between your plates. Drizzle a little garlic oil (including crispy garlic bits) over each, and top with a dollop of mayonnaise. Serve immediately, mashing the cauliflower into the oil and mayonnaise, and sopping up the juices with your favorite crusty, chewy bread.

23 thoughts on “Born-Again Vegetable Boiling

  1. One of my favorite veggie dishes when I was a kid was my mom's boiled cauliflower and broccoli with brown butter. This made me very nostalgic for it–I'm eager to give boiled cauliflower a try again. It is true that these days I default to roasting!

  2. I am so glad the days of low-fat are over. This looks so delicious and easy that I'm tempted to give it a try next time life (in the form of my organic box) hands me cauliflowers. Which unfortunately isn't that common in Japan. I'll have to wait and see. Or maybe it will work with other vegetables?

  3. Sounds delicious, but does the boiling remove all the vitamins from the caulifower? Or is that not the point 🙂It might leach out a few, but an easy way around that is to save the cooking water for soup. On the other hand, most people around the Mediterranean regularly cook their vegetables into oblivion, and theirs is considered one of the healthiest diets in the world. The sheer quantity of vegetables they consume presumably makes up for any nutrient loss due to their cooking methods, and so this is my philosophy too: better to lose a few vitamins but have a dish that compels me to eat half a cauliflower than one that preserves them all but of which I can only manage to choke down a few bites. -m

  4. Melissa, this is telepathic. I solemnly swear there's a colletive cauliflower vibe going on among us cooks. I brought a huge head of cauliflower to my parents place yesterday, planning to do something with it this very morning. So indeed we made a lovely soup with said cauliflower, jerusalem artichoke, potatos and celery root. Once that was all cooked and blended, I seasoned it with salt, a touch of lemon and sugar, a bit of nutmeg and dill. Then I got here to this site looking for your chili-glazed acorn squash, and see this post. Uncanny!

  5. The reasons that make this post is a "hard sell" are exactly what make it worthwhile. I don't understand people's objection to anchovies. They're a favorite in our kitchen. Thanks for a lovely recipe!

  6. I've never had boiled cauliflower, but now its all I can think about. That and anchovy mayonnaise. Its already such a quick meal I might have to make the mayo from scratch…its my favorite kind of mayo.

  7. Oooooh that looks like one of those deceptively simple recipes. One that you can't believe can taste as good as it does. Like yourself, I've spent a lot of time in Scotland (hubby's from West Lothian) and my favourite part (by far) of the Burns Supper is the neeps. Boiled, mashed swede with butter and salt. How does it taste so good?

  8. Not a hard sell at all! I will be making this next week as soon as I buy a cauliflower, sounds perfectly marvelous to me!

  9. I agree boiled vegetables dressed in oil can be the most delicious thing on Earth, and we have all forgotten about it. And I take your point about not making veg be the punishing part of a meal. I have found out that dressing them a bit more is, as you rightly notice, way healthier in the big picture, because you eat so much less of the really dangerous stuff. I'll probably try this in one of my lunches when I'm alone, my parter does not care about cauliflower and would never eat anchovies. I can see this becoming my guilty pleasure..

  10. Will this work with homemade mayo? I can't see a reason why not, but sometimes a recipe works is best with the commercial stuff…Absolutely, whichever you prefer! -m

  11. Wait, I thought boiling vegetables remove it's nutrients? Personally, I'm not a fan of vegetables, as a main dish, I just can't take it, but something this simple would make a good, maybe with mash potatoes and a steak, but anyway, its simple easy to do, and healthy, (not sure about boiling them though). Re: boiling, see my thoughts in my response to Lynn, above. -m

  12. Thank you for this beautiful post and recipe – I'm going to make this tonight! I find its hard to be really creative with vegetables day in day out – I tend to make a lot of salads – but this cauliflower looks delicious and easy to make.

  13. Fabulous idea..I cater to the vegetarians and vegans on the west side of Los Angeles, so I am going to try this but change the anchovies from the sauce into dulse ( sea veggie).I have a great Vita Mix blender that should do the trick.Thanks for the great Ideas, I am going to be following your posts from now on..Brilliant!

  14. This sounds really good, but roasted cauliflower is one of the best things ever, and would probably go equally well with the mayo. Perhaps a mixed plate of the two would be the perfect solution to the problem!

  15. You can steam vegetables to the same degree of silken doneness and preserve most of the nutrients that would be lost in boiled water. That's 80's diet wisdom for ya!

  16. Boiled vegetables are the healthiest! And the anchovy-caper mayo seems to complement it well! What other anchovy alternatives can I use? We're not big fans of anchovies. But I want to try this recipe!

  17. I love veggies whatever way they might be cooked. I just love all the different things one can do with them. And the color is just amazingly appetizing.

  18. Cauliflower and garlic is a favorite at family dinners. Because of the mayonnaise, we don't make it very often, because, it's hard to stop eating it!!To those who are opposed to boiling, we do our recipe by steaming. We also use a lot more garlic, which becomes quite mellow when mixed together warm.This is my story of how I learned about a very similar dish:'s a dish I think many would enjoy, but so few know about.

  19. Hi, I have a bag of broccoli florets that I desperately need to use and some artisan bread in the crock pot right now. Do you think this recipe would translate well to broccoli?Cheers!

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