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Monday, March 14, 2016

Flower Power

I'm not sure why my family didn't grow cauliflower on our rural lakeside farm in western Kentucky. It seemed like we grew everything. For the most part, we lived off the fat of the land. Almost everything we ate came from the farm my grandfather nurtured after the Great Depression. Back in the day, they had little and wanted for nothing. The old farm was their modern day supermarket. That deep-rooted notion carried its weight for decades and still existed when I found myself plucked from another world and planted on their farm. Canned garden fresh vegetables eventually made their way down to the dimly lit root cellar, friendly cows wound up in the deep freezer, and pet chickens ended up on the Sunday table. Farm life..

My grandparent's vegetable garden was huge.Seemingly planted with an eye to aesthetics, cherry trees filled the center, splitting the garden in half. A wooden planked fence, draped in grape vines, stood guard between food and livestock, protecting our treasures.. Packed with almost everything we needed, it felt like a lush storybook secret garden.

When my dad built our own home across the rolling meadow within eyesight of my grandparent's house, he tilled and tilled an old barren field for a bigger and better garden. Big tools. Big equipment. Bigger. Better. Best. It was a fine garden. Wrapped with bothersome barbed wire, trapped and bathed in perfect sunlight, it produced the biggest melons, the tallest corn, tons of pickling cucumbers, juicy sun-kissed tomatoes, new potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnips, beets, radishes, and green beans. Although I don't recall ever eating cauliflower, I'm sure frozen nubs might have popped up in curious casseroles, soups, and stews. But, farm to table? Nope. Not from my father's garden.

I met the cauliflower of my dreams when I left the farm and skipped off to college. Armed with a prepaid meal card, the student cafeteria was my lone option for 'real food'. On one of my first visits to the uncool cafeteria, I discovered cauliflower bubbling and bobbing away in a vivid orange cheese sauce. Glowing through the drab wasteland of the sterile buffet, that cauliflower slapped me silly. I fell for it hook, line, and sinker. Over the course of my freshman year in college, I scooped the seemingly endless supply of cheesy cauliflower over meatloaf, swirled it into pasta, spooned it over dry salisbury steaks, mixed it with other vegetables, or simply ate it on its own. Aside from an occasional pizza or late night  Hot Fudge Cake from Jerry's Restaurant, I lived for that cauliflower. I adored it.

While I still have a soft spot for the cheesy stuff I slathered on everything, nowadays, I'm more prone to roast, mash, or puree cauliflower as a sidekick to the main event. There are times, however, when cauliflower takes center stage.

Whole Roasted Cauliflower Puttanesca.
Simple and straightforward.

I trimmed the bottom of a medium sized cauliflower to level the playing field before thoroughly rubbing the entire head with 4 tablespoons of olive oil and seasoning  it with sea salt, cracked black pepper, paprika, and citrusy sumac. I massaged the spices into the bumpy crevices of the cauliflower, placed it into a parchment paper lined baking pan, and slid it into a 425 degree oven. To create a little steam for a moist environment, I slipped a pan of boiling water on a rack beneath the cauliflower.

Puttanesca Sauce.
Tomatoes. Onions. Black Olives. Capers. Anchovies.

While I typically prepare puttanesca sauce with farm fresh tomatoes, it's way too early for those summer jewels.  So, what's the next best thing to use this time of year? Farm fresh canned tomatoes.

I drizzled a large cast iron skillet with olive oil and cranked the heat to medium high. When the oil started to smoke, I added 2 slivered shallots, 4 pasted garlic cloves, and 6 oil-packed anchovy fillets. Using the back of a wooden spoon, I crushed the anchovies until they melted into the oil and added 1 pint hand crushed Triple J Farm canned halved tomatoes, juices reserved. As the tomatoes collapsed, I tumbled 1 cup halved Kalamata olives and 3 tablespoons capers into the skillet. When the sauce started to thicken, I deglazed the skillet with 1/2 cup white wine and 1 cup of the reserved tomato juice. After showering the sauce with cracked black pepper, I reduced the heat to low and let it simmer.on a back burner.

After an hour, I pulled the cauliflower from the oven and carefully placed it into the skillet with the puttanesca sauce, covered the skillet with aluminum foil, and returned the cauliflower to the oven to steam/roast/braise for an additional 45 minutes, removing the foil during the last 15 minutes. When the cauliflower was tender enough to pierce with a metal skewer, I removed the skillet from the oven, lifted the cauliflower out of the sauce, and set it aside,

To loosen the reduced sauce, I added 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil along with the juice and zest of a Meyer lemon to create a loosey-goosey riff on a warm broken vinaigrette.

 I sliced the cauliflower into 1" steaks and nestled them into pools of puttanesca before finishing with
flaked salt, shaved parmigano-Reggiano and fresh parsley.

Splashed with sauce, the crispy tinged edges of the cauliflower played off the delicate and pristine roasted center meat. The slight sweetness of the melted tomatoes mellowed the intense salty funk of the anchovies and the subtle punch of garlic. While the small hit of fresh lemon added bright notes of acidity, the capers provided tiny pops of tang that countered the briny bitterness of the softened black olives.

Whole roasted cauliflower.
Hold the cheese.

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