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.

An Inspiring Book

I have a really fantastic new book to tell you about today. In fact, it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve seen in a long time. Just look at it. Don’t you just want to grab a mug of something hot and curl up with it on the sofa?

Chances are you’ve heard about this book already, particularly if you’re a dedicated reader of food blogs. That’s because the author is one of our own—the incredibly talented Béatrice Peltre, better known as La Tartine Gourmande.

But Béa hardly needs any introduction from me. In the years she’s been blogging, her site has become one of the best-known (and loved) out there, receiving numerous awards and helping launch her career as both a food writer and photographer.

One look at her site and it’s not hard to understand why. Her food is elegant and imaginative, and her big, luminous photos tease out the beauty in everything they capture. And then there’s Béa herself, one of the nicest, most down-to-earth people I know, not to mention one of the most energetic and endlessly creative.

Her brand-new book, La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life, captures everything I love about Béa and her site. It’s unbelievably beautiful, chock-full of her gorgeous photography that makes you want to just lift a spoon off the page and dig in. Her writing revolves around her life in Boston, her family and her travels, but my favorite parts are those about her childhood in rural France, where between kitchen, orchard and garden she learned to value natural, seasonal food. This affinity shines through in her recipes, which effortlessly strike a balance between simple and sophisticated. A lot of her dishes have French pedigrees (including her namesake tartines) but they always carry her unmistakeable touch: an unexpected vegetable, a surprising spice, a more wholesome grain. Fruits and vegetables are given center stage, but it only dawns on you later that the book is nearly vegetarian—not to mention gluten-free, utilizing things like millet, quinoa and amaranth to build tender tart crusts and delicate cakes.

I asked Béa to select a recipe from the book for me to share with you here. The one she chose, I think, sums up the feel of her book perfectly. In it, she’s taken something familiar and even a little mundane—baked apples, in this case—and lifted them almost beyond recognition with an exotic nut-and-fruit filling and a fragrant syrup perfumed with vanilla, olive oil and spices. Imagine your favorite comfort food took a trip someplace exotic and came back just that little bit more worldly and sophisticated—that’s how these apples taste. She suggests serving them with yogurt as a light dessert; my advice is to double the recipe and have some for breakfast too.

But wait, that’s not all! Béa’s publisher has also very kindly offered me an extra copy of her book to give away. Just leave a comment (including your email address, so I can contact you) anytime between now and next Wednesday (March 7th) at 9pm CET, and I’ll enter you in the drawing. And before you ask—yes, it can be shipped anywhere in the world!

All photos © Béatrice Peltre

Baked Apples with Spices, Olive Oil and Nuts

Béa wrote me this about the recipe: “I grew up in rural France with apple picking as one of my favorite autumn food traditions. At home, from my grandparents, aunts and uncles, to my parents and brother, everyone had at least one apple tree in their back garden. Every year, when September came and the fruit was ripe, we’d fill buckets with apples to make apple tarts and compotes (apples stewed). Apple naturally became a favorite fruit of mine, and so were baked apples.

I particularly like to prepare baked apples because this type of preparation allows for the fruit to really stands out. My recipe uses a lot of my favorite flavors—lemon, apple juice, vanilla, pistachios, and almonds—and is enhanced with the subtle aroma of olive oil. It’s simple and completely irresistible eaten warm with plain yogurt on the side.”

Serves: 4
Source: La Tartine Gourmande: Recipes for an Inspired Life by Béatrice Peltre

4 tablespoons dried cranberries, finely chopped
4 tablespoons shelled unsalted pistachios, finely chopped
4 tablespoons slivered almonds, finely chopped
1 cup (250ml) fresh apple juice
Finely-grated zest and juice of one organic lemon
1 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped out
4 crisp, flavorful apples, e.g. Reinette, Pink Lady, Cortland, Winesap or Liberty
4 cinnamon sticks
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons turbinado (raw) sugar

In a small bowl, combine the cranberries, pistachios and almonds; set aside.

In a pot, combine the apple juice, lemon zest, vanilla bean and seeds. Bring to a boil, then remove from the heat. Cover and leave to infuse for 30 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350F(175C).

Core the apples, then slice the top off each one (set these aside) and drizzle with lemon juice. Place the apples in a baking dish and divide the stuffing mix among them. Place a cinnamon stick in each apple and cover them with their tops. Pour the infused juice and the oil over the apples and sprinkle with sugar.

Place the apples in the oven and bake for 1 hour, or until the flesh is tender, regularly drizzling with the cooking juices. Remove from the oven and serve warm with the juices and plain yogurt on the side.

Cold Comfort

Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices

Europe, as you’ve no doubt heard, has been pretty cold lately. After a far-warmer-than-average November, December and January, February donned its icy gloves and sent an entire continent reeling with a left hook that nobody saw coming.

In Germany, though, it’s been pretty much business as usual. People here are simply used to operating at much colder temperatures, and the strange thing is that even I feel myself slowly joining their ranks. Human adaptability is a remarkable thing, isn’t it? I remember as a kid experiencing a rare California cold snap one winter that sent the entire state into chaos: oranges froze solid on their vines, homeless people died of hypothermia, the news channels reported on it as if it were the apocalypse. I also remember breathlessly reporting on the ordeal a few weeks later to my dad’s sister and her husband, who were visiting from out of town. “How cold did it get?” my uncle asked. “During the day we had highs only a few degrees above freezing!” I told him gravely. He burst out laughing; he was from Chicago, where a winter day just above freezing is welcome relief.

By now I can sympathize with my uncle’s reaction—thanks to a few German winters I too have a different conception of ‘cold’. Cold used to be where you needed a scarf as well as a jacket; now it’s where, despite gloves, you can’t feel your hands after a 30-second walk out to the car. Cold is where your face feels like it’s being attacked by a sandblaster and the air is so razor-sharp you restrict your breathing to short, shallow gasps. Cold is where every time you dress to go out you feel you’re preparing for battle.

But cold isn’t all bad. If anything, having to deal with truly cold weather has made me appreciate it in ways I would never have expected. There’s its dryness, for instance, which is a welcome antidote to the soggy, soaked-to-the-bone winters I lived through in the Pacific Northwest and Scotland. Then there’s the phenomenon that the temperature outside is in inverse correlation to what I call the ‘cozy factor’ of home. A warmly-lit room, a soft sofa and a hot mug of tea are infinitely more appealing when you know just how cold it is on the other side of your walls.

And then of course there’s the fact that nothing stimulates the appetite better than cold weather. It even makes food taste better, I find. Hot chocolate, cheese fondue, and steaming bowls of pasta seem to have extra flavor compounds unlocked by plunging temperatures. Lentil soup is another one; although I eat it in warmer months too, it’s during exceptionally cold weather that it seems to comfort and nourish at a whole new level.

I was surprised to realize recently that I’ve never posted a single recipe for lentil soup here. In fact, my selection of soups is pretty paltry considering how much I love them and how often they appear on our table. The problem, I think, is that like with salads, I rarely follow a recipe for soup, instead using whatever I have on hand. For lentil soup this is particularly true; made with a few veggies, an herb sprig or two and a little smoked ham or bacon, it’s always different and always good, but rarely worth noting down for posterity.

But then there’s this one. Sometimes you run across a recipe that’s just so perfect you’re not even tempted to tinker. And so you make it, exactly as written, year after year.

Many of you are probably already familiar with this soup. It was put on my radar by Molly a few years ago, and comes from the cookbook Once Upon a Tart, named after the eatery of the same name in Manhattan. For me, this soup belongs to a rare category of nearly ideal foods, a pitch-perfect harmony of flavors whose sheer deliciousness comes with a wholesome factor to match. Thick with coconut and laced with sweet spices it definitely nods towards India, but the use of French lentils, vegetable (or chicken) stock and thyme ensures it stays firmly grounded in the great European soup tradition, and indeed it seems to take best to accompaniments from this side of the world—a few slices of buttered whole-grain toast, for instance, and a simple tomato or carrot salad. Oftentimes, though, I feel anything else just distracts from its pure, elemental satisfaction; a bowl, a spoon and a freezing cold night are really all the accompaniment it needs.

Green Lentil Soup with Coconut Milk and Warm Spices

Okay, I don’t make this soup exactly as written, but pretty close. My main change involves the ironing out of a few procedural wrinkles. Rather than frying things twice (first onions and garlic, later spices) as called for in the original recipe, I make this according to the Indian technique of cooking the lentils until soft, then frying all the aromatics and stirring them into the soup towards the end. It not only saves time, it allows you to get away with half the butter or oil (which I usually make up for by dumping in the entire can of coconut milk), and it really makes the flavors sing. I also add some fresh greens if I have any on hand, though the soup is plenty fantastic without them too.
Serves: 3-4
Source: adapted from Once Upon a Tart by Frank Mentesana and Jerome Audureau

1 1/2 cups (275g) French green lentils (brown lentils work in a pinch)
6 cups (1.5l) vegetable or chicken stock
1 bushy sprig fresh thyme
1 1/2 teaspoons turmeric
3 tablespoons butter, vegetable or coconut oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
1/2 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
a pinch of freshly-ground nutmeg
1 cup (250ml) coconut milk, or to taste (I normally use a whole 14oz/400ml can which makes a slightly richer soup)
a few handfuls (~7oz/200g) fresh spinach, chard or kale, washed, tough stems discarded and cut into ribbons (optional)
salt and freshly-ground black pepper, to taste

Rinse the lentils and pick out any debris. Combine them in a pot with the stock, thyme and tumeric and bring to a gentle boil. Reduce the heat slightly and simmer until the lentils are soft, about 20 minutes. Fish out the thyme.

While the lentils are cooking, heat the butter or oil in a smallish skillet and sauté the onion over medium heat, stirring frequently, until browned and caramelized in places, about 12-15 minutes. Add the garlic and spices and fry just until deeply aromatic, about 30 seconds. Scrape the contents of the skillet into the pot with the lentils, and add the coconut milk and optional greens too. Bring everything back to a gentle boil and cook another 10 minutes, or until the flavors have blended and the greens are tender. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve hot.