Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Sometimes Twice

I've been at it since fall - cooking cauliflower too long with too much olive oil. Cedar calls it "cauliflower cooked forever," named after the broccoli cooked forever I make often and he loves, also obviously cooked too long and with even more olive oil. He asks for the cauliflower in his lunch. He asks to eat it for snack. And when Eden is in tantrums from hunger at mealtime, some days her only gateway food is this. She will soothe herself to normalcy with just a few bites.

The past two months have been a unforeseen hiatus from here and elsewhere. My beloved was away for most of it on a job that went awry, and the kids and I spent our time trying to make life feel normal. We kept busy. We frequented other peoples' tables (meaning both sets of grandparents).  And I made this. Every single week. Sometimes twice.

More than once my sister came over as the cauliflower was cooking in the oven. The first time she ate it and told me that this, this cauliflower, this is what I needed to blog about. Well, Mara, here you go.

One may assume that so few ingredients mean the recipe is unforgiving - that the ingredients must be pristine for the dish to taste good. I am sorry but that rule just does not apply here. I have used cauliflower so decrepit I've had to shave off the whole outer layer. I've used limp and wobbly bell peppers. I've used cheap olive oil and dollar a box sea salt. And it all tasted the same as when the vegetables were firm and fresh, the olive oil high and mighty, and the sea salt hand-harvested and sold crunchy in its pyramidal form.

And so - contrary to all we know - the secret here is not in the quality of ingredients. The secret to this cauliflower cooked forever is in the method. It is in the shape and size of the florets, the adherence to a meditative cooking pace, and a commitment to not stop that cooking too soon. For a while I tried twisting and breaking the cauliflower apart instead of using a knife. The drama was exciting and the movements therapeutic, but the results fell short of real life perfection. All that mangling pre-softened the poor crucifer. And even the perfectly overcooked vegetable didn't have quite the right collapse.

Because what we're looking for here is a velvet disintegration of cauliflower on the tongue when pressed to the roof of the mouth. Not before. This is comfort food at its height and depth. Structure enough until the melt of emotion. Vegetative grounding. This is about simplicity. The true kind, when all half a meal takes is five minutes of washing and cutting up and a long, hands-off warming through to softness. The kind of cooking we do when we don't have a brain or time or energy but still need dinner. What we get on the other side of the ovenspace is nothing short of a home cook's miracle, awe and wonder redefined: cauliflower and olive oil and red pepper in a broth of brine all its own.

A couple nights ago the beloved came home. For good. I know the rest of California is all about the asparagus and the artichokes right now, but I'm still wrapping up the tail end of winter. Ease into the surge of spring slowly, I say. Don't break your back. Cook this.  

Cauliflower Cooked Forever (the short, simple version)

Again, sad, languishing vegetables can find grace here. Be gentle to them and they will be gentle to you. No need for fancy salt or olive oil either. Anything you have in your cupboard is probably loveable enough. And hey - my kids won't eat the peppers but I never leave them out because they add a haunting roasted pepper flavor by their sheer proximity. So go for it.

1 large head cauliflower, cut into small, baby toddler-sized florets
1 red bell pepper, cut in 1-inch chunks
~1/3 cup olive oil
~1/4 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt

Combine all ingredients in a large roasting pan or the like, massaging the oil and salt well into the cauliflower. Taste now. It should taste abruptly saline, but not entirely brackish. Add more salt if it tastes too mild. Cover, turn the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit, and bake undisturbed for about an hour, maybe an hour and a half. When you slide it out of the oven, uncover and test. It should be velvet. Collapsible but not mush (really, there is quite a difference). If it doesn't look meltingly soft, it could probably handle up to a half an hour more. My favorite way to cook this is to start high and end low. Start it at 350 for a half hour and then turn it down to 300 for another hour. How low can you go?

Serve piping hot, warm, at room temperature, or even refrigerator cold. It's good all ways. Enjoy!