The dog swapped her slumbering position between patches of sun and shade, spotted belly bared, and the cat, newly svelte and much happier, had even dared to pad silently outside. Beautiful, companionable quietude. Bees buzzed around us and the tiny, tightly furled blossoms that cover the cumquat tree. Illuminated by gorgeous autumn light, they refused to open despite the industry. Surely they must yield soon. With a weekend of rain – glorious, drenching rain - forecast, and cold weather on the horizon, an unexpected afternoon of soaking in the sunshine lay before us. A pot of chamomile tea, a virgin notebook in need of some scribbling and Mark Bittman, for inspiration, by my side.
Inside, an entire head of cauliflower waited, patiently, on the kitchen bench. It had taken nigh on a week to tackle, overlooked for the more exotic produce that it had come home with. Poor, lonely, lovely thing. Last year I read rapturous descriptions of the nuttiness, the golden goodness, of cauliflowers, carved up and roasted in the oven. So I tried, wanting to join the Love-In too, but each time that lingering, sulphurous smell would snake its way from the oven to the farthest corners of the house and my heart, again, would sink. I was beginning to think myself a numbskull. Then Mr Bittman seduced me, in the front garden no less, into one last try.
Pleased I succumbed? Oh. Yes.
Be picky. What you want is fresh, young and whole. The ideal cauli is small and tightly budded; leaves crisp, gently cradling and curling around its precious, pale cargo. There should be no sign, absolutely none, of yellowing or, as revolting as it sounds, browning; just pure, creamy curds. Like a bouquet of pretty, white flowers. A head halved and wrapped in plastic is of no use to The Cauliflower Hunter. You need to employ your sense of smell here - and it must not ever, never-ever, smell like something you wouldn’t like to nibble right there, on the spot.
Good eaten outdoors, among the bees, while the sun still shines.
Roasted cauliflower, Manchurian-style – feeds 2-4, depending on greed
If you scoff at the idea of eating half a cauliflower each in one fell swoop as we both did, then this will make you re-think. Why Manchurian? No idea. Bittman uses tomato sauce (ketchup) which would undoubtedly convince every child in the land to gobble up their veg. Substitute 1 cup, preservative-free, for the homemade tomato sauce and the recipe is that much quicker.
1 compact, perfect head of cauliflower
Sea salt and pepper
1 onion, finely chopped
1 x 400g (15oz) tin of chopped tomatoes
A good glug of red wine vinegar
A good glug of balsamic vinegar
2 teaspoons of sugar
3 fat cloves of garlic, finely chopped
Good pinch (or more) of chilli powder
Preheat the oven to 200 C (400 F). Core, trim and break the cauliflower into florets of even-ish size. Arrange in a single layer in a baking dish. Toss with 2 tablespoons of oil, 1 teaspoon of salt and loads of pepper and roast, turning twice, for 30 minutes.
Fry the onion in a little oil until soft and beginning to colour. Add the tomatoes, juice and all, followed by the vinegars, sugar and a little salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer briskly for 10-15 minutes, until reduced to about a cup. Puree until smooth.
5 minutes before the cauliflower is ready, heat a splash of oil in a large frying pan over a medium heat. Add the garlic, and cook for a minute or two until fragrant, but not coloured. Pour in the tomato sauce (either the one above, or use 1 cup of ketchup) and cook, stirring often, for a few minutes, until the sauce bubbles and thickens – it must be rich and sticky. Add the chilli powder to taste and, when ready, tip the cauliflower florets into the pan. Toss over and over, making sure they are well coated in the sauce and serve, hot.
Robert Rauschenberg died last Monday, aged 82. He redefined collage, indeed painting, and is, without doubt, among my favourite artists.