It’s cauliflower, but not as we know it – seared cauliflower “steaks” with almond and sultana butter

Cauliflower cheese, you say? Bored, bored, bored*! I know it’s an old favorite and on a chilly Sunday afternoon with a roast dinner, maybe it has a place.

However, on a balmy evening in Miami, with a 24 oz, grass-fed, naturally-raised beef porterhouse sizzling on the grill we have no business with the often overcooked cauli. Its sometimes floury sauce and its fat-oozing cheese do not belong on our dinner plates. With a bit of special treatment though, the humble, pale cauliflower can come into its own.

Some years ago Ian Leckie, head chef at Sam’s Brasserie did something very similar with roast cauliflower as an accompaniment to sea bass and last year I had an appetizer at a Miami local that was similar to what I’m going to show you here. So it’s not a totally new idea, but hopefully it is new to you.

Feeds four as an appetizer or more as a side dish

  • 1 whole head of cauliflower, washed
  • 1 small handful of raisins or sultanas, soaked in a little warm water for about 1/2 an hour and then drained (I like the colour-match of the sultanas in this dish so that’s what I used but remember they are sweeter than raisins).
  • 1 small handful of whole, blanched almonds. If you’ve had almonds sitting in your pantry for months, please taste them before using them. Nuts go rancid, especially in warm store cupboards.
  • 175g unsalted butter, fridge cold and cubed (you can use salted, just allow for it when you season later)
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill or fennel tops (I don’t like dill so never use it and happened to have a fennel bulb in the fridge from which I was able to scavenge the delicate, fragrant fronds)
  • salt and freshly ground white pepper (you can, of course, use black but I don’t like the black specks in my beautiful, shiny yellow sauce)

Cubed butter

Wine reduction

  • 1 cup of dry white wine
  • 2 thick slices of onion
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 3 or 4 black peppercorns
  • pinch of salt

Wine reduction: you need this for your butter emulsion. Put all the ingredients into a small saucepan, bring to the boil and reduce until you have about two table spoons of liquid. Remove or strain out all the bits, reserve the liquid and set aside until you need it.

Almonds: toast in a preheated oven at 180 c for ten minutes, more or less. Keep a close eye on them, you want them brown but not burnt. Let them cool and then crack using a pestle and mortar or chop them up with a sharp knife – not too finely though.

Cauliflower: While the almonds are toasting you can prepare the cauliflower. Cut a little off the base of the cauliflower to give it a flat side that you can stand it on. Using the longest knife you’ve got, slice the cauliflower into “steaks” – I like them about 1.5 to 2 cm thick but whatever suits you is fine. Remember though that if the slices are too thin the florets may break off.

In a shallow pan, bring enough salted water to the boil to cover the cauliflower slices  – it’s hard to find a pan that will hold four slices of cauliflower so do this in batches, it only takes a few minutes. Blanch each slice just long enough to ensure you no longer have raw cauliflower. You still want it quite firm. Drain and set aside. Tip the water out of your pan, give it a wipe down, toss in one or two of your cubes of butter and return the pan to the heat.

BlancheBlanche

Once the butter has melted and started to foam, swirl it around the pan to cover the base, return the cauliflower to the pan, reduce heat to medium and sauté each side until you have a good caramelization over the cauliflower.

SautéSauté

Butter sauce: While the cauliflower is browning in the sauté pan you can prepare the butter emulsion. Emulsions can be a bit precious and tend to split if not treated with love so go slowly, use very very cold butter and keep whisking.

Put your reserved wine reduction into a small saucepan and place over a high heat. It will only take a few seconds for the reduction to heat up and when it has, reduce the stove temp and start adding your butter, one cube at a time, whisking all the time. Don’t add more butter until the cube in the pan has completely melted. You may need to remove the pan from the heat from time to time, you don’t want this to boil.

Adding butter

Keep a jug of boiling water nearby and if you see your emulsion starting to split, add a few drops (and I do mean a few drops – like a teaspoon full) of boiling water and keep whisking, it will come together again. Once all your butter is incorporated, stir in your fennel fronds or dill and remove from the heat.

Thicker

Fennel fronds

Add the roughly chopped almonds and the drained sultanas to the butter sauce and season with salt and white pepper. Put the cauliflower slices on a serving plate/plates and spoon over the sauce.

Notes: 

Cauliflower “steaks”  – great for presentation but can be finicky to prepare and is not really necessary. The same awesome flavor is achieved by simply breaking the cauliflower into florets, blanching them and sautéing them.

Butter emulsion – regardless of the quantity of sauce you are making, you will not need more than two tablespoons of the wine reduction. If you prefer not to use wine, the same effect can be achieved (with obvious flavor differences) by using a wine vinegar reduction or simply using water.

This type of butter sauce is a good one to have in your repertoire – it does not contain egg, is quick to prepare, can be flavored with just about any herb and can be used on any number of dishes – grilled/steamed/poached fish, as a dipper for asparagus, as a garnish on other veggies.   

* Apologies to any cauliflower cheese I may have offended with my cries of boredom, it is in fact, still one of my favorites.
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What about the bay leaf?

I’ve been thinking about bay leaves – boring, I know. Please don’t stop reading, this is going somewhere.

In Jennifer Reese’s awesome Make The Bread, Buy The Butter (one of my favourite books of 2011) she has this to say about bay leaves, “If bay leaf didn’t exist, would anyone miss it? I’ve never tasted something and thought, This stew is just crying out for bay leaf. But I keep buying and using it nonetheless.” She’s right, of course. But I wanted her to be wrong. I love bay leaves. And bay trees.

I started searching online, it’s where all searches begin, really, and I found a lot of very dull “add to soup” type of advice. I also found the equally dull “they’re good if you add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon”, I even found “weave them into a wreath” (really, a wreath!) and my best “make potpourri” – do people really do that? Am I missing out here?

I turned to books and found that Larousse calls them “indispensable” but doesn’t say why and the brilliant Simon Hopkinson “thanks The Lord” for them. Every chef, it seems, loves a bay leaf.

After much fruitless Googling and page turning I remembered my Momofuku obsession of ’09 – the obsession actually started way before then but the fires of the obsession were stoked when David Chang committed some of his recipes to paper. Anyway, I remembered seeing a small, bay-focused recipe in those pages.

It’s so simple, pork fat infused with fresh bay then whipped into butter (with the help of some added melted butter) set in the fridge and then and served with homemade muffins. Sounds awesome, no?

So I tried it. Easy enough to do. I used the rendered fat from very smokey bacon, unsalted butter and about 10 bay leaves and was left with a little over a cup of beautiful, silky, bay leaf butter. But what next? There are only so many muffins a girl can eat… and I didn’t actually have any muffins and I was not about to make muffins.

I brushed it onto thick slices of ciabatta and toasted them on the bbq. Quite nice but was the ciabatta better for it? Not sure. Would I have missed the bay if I’d slathered the ciabatta in plain bacon butter and grilled it? Not sure about that either. (Also, toasted bacon butter bread! Now that might be something I could get onboard with – bit of a Paula Deen moment).

I gently seared scallops in it. Nice enough but not life changing. The delicate sweetness of the scallops actually benefitted more from the smokey bacon flavours than from the bay leaf.

I tried a bit of a wintery risotto with it. Again, nice enough but a bit ho hum.

I had a rack of pork from which my butcher had inexplicably removed the fat – seriously, who does that? Knowing it was not going to have the benefit of being cooked under a layer of gently melting pig fat I smothered it in a mixture of bay leaf butter and dijon mustard before roasting. It was okay. I noticed the bay leaf because I was looking for it but would I have missed it if it wasn’t there? I doubt it.

The result of the bay leaf experiment: awesome? No.

If you happen to have a glut of bay leaves hanging around the best I can suggest is … add them to potatoes/chicken/ bouquet garni/ court-bouillon or maybe weave them into a wreath or make some potpourri.

A London restaurant I worked at adorned its front entrance with gorgeous, eucalyptusy bay trees – the soft scent is so evocative to me that when I pass fresh bay trees in a nursery (or wherever) I instinctively check my pockets for pens and wine openers and square my shoulders for service. Maybe one never outgrows stuff like that? And maybe that’s the point of the bay.