Friday, January 27, 2012

Cauliflower Curry

Cauliflower are secretive plants, with long, blue-green leaves that are perfectly shaped for concealing.  I planted a colorful variety of cauliflower plants this year, a yellow one, a purple one, a green one, and a standard white one, but for most of the season I only knew that each would produce a different-colored head of cauliflower because that is what the seedling markers at the nursery told me.  As the neighboring broccoli produced heads that grew from small to big to should-have-been-harvested-yesterday, then set about even more openly making secondary heads, the cauliflower plants grew leafier, clutching any developing flower heads so tightly that even if I tried to catch a peek, all I could see at the center of each plant were so many scoop-shaped leaves wrapped tightly around each other.

When the first head of cauliflower finally did emerge from its leaves around the winter solstice, it was almost full size already, leaving me only a few days to enjoy the view of a growing cauliflower in the garden.  And, of course, it was the white cauliflower that matured long before the colorful ones, giving me a couple more weeks to stare sideways at the remaining plants, looking for signs of color emerging from within the standard cauliflower-plant leaves.

Snow Crown Cauliflower

But I don't want to downplay the loveliness of the white cauliflower.  I harvested the Snow Crown Cauliflower on December 27, which was only 77 days after transplanting it into the garden.  The Snow Crown produced a large, heavy head of cauliflower that was delicious and remained crunchy even after frying it and cooking it with vegetables.  In fact, even after about 20 minutes of cooking, I wondered if I should have cooked the cauliflower a little bit longer, because it was still that crunchy.  So, for texture and resilience to over-cooking, I give the Snow Crown very high marks.

Given that December was the month of the broccoli and cheese – broccoli-cheese pie, broccoli-cheese soup, and broccoli-cheese salad – I wanted to do something different with the first cauliflower of the season.  I surveyed cauliflower curry recipes online and discovered that some of them called for methi (fenugreek) and cilantro leaves, both of which were growing in the front yard garden.  I narrowed my search to "methi gobi masala" recipes, or fenugreek and cauliflower curry recipes, and found a few that would make good use of the early, white cauliflower while also giving me a reason to harvest some fenugreek and cilantro.

All that remained was prep the cauliflower for cooking, which took me back, as breaking apart a head of cauliflower always does, to the first time that I prepped cauliflower.  It was a Sunday afternoon in the fall of my year of living at House of Commons, a vegetarian housing co-op in west campus.  I was cooking dinner for the house, or more accurately, I was assisting my co- dinner cook, who was the one with the recipe and the clue as to how to deal with so many heads of cauliflower.  My job was to prep the cauliflower, which the recipe instructed me to do by "disassembling" each head into florets.  Disassemble the cauliflower?

I should probably also mention that I was high at the time that I was reading those instructions, not because I had smoked cannabis any time recently, because, even in my early 20's, I was the sort of overly responsible person who actually preferred to do the major tasks of the day sober, and only then, with the work done and the dishes washed, I might have a beer or smoke some weed.  But on this particular Sunday I was still high from the brownie that I had eaten the day before on a house excursion to the Marley Fest.  So, 24 hours later, still high and by this point annoyed by it, missing my focused, sober self, I turned over that first head of cauliflower and began disassembling it, as the recipe instructed.   And I realized then that to disassemble was the absolute perfect verb for the situation, for breaking apart a head of cauliflower, which had the heft and the solidity and, when turned over, the internal framing of something that was built.  Maybe that is why those cauliflower plants are so secretive in their progress, protective of their process as they build a heavy head of curds that can only be accessed with a sharp knife and an eye for structure.

Methi Gobi Masala (Cauliflower with Fenugreek Curry)
Adapted from recipes here, here, and here

1 bunch fresh fenugreek (methi) leaves
1/2 bunch fresh cilantro leaves

1 large head of cauliflower
safflower (or canola) oil for frying (optional)

2 tablespoon safflower (or canola) oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
6-8 curry leaves
1 large onion, chopped

4-5 green chilies, seeded and chopped
5-6 garlic cloves, peeled
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and sliced
1 large tomato, chopped
1 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon red chili powder
1 teaspoon coriander powder
1/2 to 1 teaspoon sea salt (to taste)

Remove the fenugreek (methi) leaves from the stems and wash the leaves thoroughly.  Set the leaves aside.  Remove the cilantro leaves from the stems and wash the leaves thoroughly.  Set the leaves aside.

Disassemble the head of cauliflower, or cut it into bite-size pieces.  Soak the cauliflower pieces in cold water to remove any bugs or dirt, then rinse and dry.

Heat a generous amount of safflower oil (about 1/4 cup) in a large frying pan over medium-high heat.  Fry the cauliflower for about 5 minutes, stirring frequently, until the cauliflower is browned.  Be sure not to overcook the cauliflower – it should still be crispy.  Remove the cauliflower from the oil and set aside on a paper towel.  Alternatively, to reduce the amount of oil in the recipe, blanch or steam the cauliflower for 5 minutes, then immediately drain and cool the cauliflower pieces.

Heat 2 tablespoons safflower oil in a frying pan over medium-high heat.  (If you fried the cauliflower, simply return that pan to the burner.)  Add the cumin seeds and curry leaves and fry for about a minute, or until the cumin seeds brown and become aromatic.  Add the onion and cook, stirring periodically, until the onion is softened, about five minutes.  Remove the curry leaves.

Place the green chilies, garlic cloves, and ginger pieces into a food processor and pulse a few times to make a chunky paste of the fresh spices.  Add the paste of spices to the pan where the onions are cooking, stir well, and continue cooking for another few minutes.  Add the tomato, stir well, and cook until the tomato juices are released.  Add the turmeric, red chili, and coriander powders and stir to mix thoroughly.  Add sea salt to taste.

Add the cauliflower to the pan and cook, stirring periodically, for 8 to 10 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender-crispy and uniformly mixed with the onions and spices.  Add the fenugreek (methi) leaves and cook, stirring periodically, for another 5 minutes.

Remove from the heat, stir in the cilantro leaves, and serve hot with basmati rice or naan bread.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Other Outside

Lee and I went hiking three times in the first week of the new year, twice at the Greenbelt and once at McKinney Falls.  It felt wonderful to be outside, to be in the woods, to soak in the sun of a few perfect-temperature days.  This is my new year's resolution, I thought to myself as we walked, to get outside more, to go for more walks, to enjoy the nice days of Austin's cool season before the brutal days of summer arrive.  And, while I was in the woods, walking down a trail, breathing in the earthy smells of recent leaf fall and post-rain regrowth, and appreciating the fact that each species of tree has a characteristic branching pattern and shape, like a visual fingerprint, that allows me to recognize it, even in winter, especially in winter, even without leaves, my intention was very clear and direct: I enjoy being outside and I want to spent more time here.

Bald Cypress in winter

Back at home, where broccoli and bok choy need to be harvested and cooked yesterday, and post-rain regrowth means that winter annuals (better known as weeds) threaten to overtake every non-mowable corner of the yard, and I find myself dressing for work by pulling jeans, washed and dried two days ago, out of the tangle of underwear and socks that is still sitting in the dryer, my mental resolution list becomes more muddy.  I want to get outside more, I want to go for more walks, I want to keep up with all the vegetables in the front yard and cook more meals from scratch, and, while I'm at it, I want to weatherize the house and replace the dead shrubs in the yard and read more books and write more and do my taxes before April and keep the house clean and spend more time with Lee and on and on and on...  Until, eventually, it is hard for me to distinguish between what I want and what I think I should be able to do with my waking hours.  Between being outside and the Other Outside.

I learned of the Other Outside from Benji, our cat.  At 17, largely retired from the territorial life of neighborhood kitty politics that goes on in our yard and garden, she is content to rule the household from inside, curled up on a couch pillow or stretched out in a sunny window.  But as the household ruler, she reserves the right to go outside when she wants, to smell the wind and find out what's up in the larger world of the backyard, to supervise my garden projects, or to interfere Lee's or my attempt to leave for work.

Benji checks out this year's kale

Though Benji is the most vocal (and loudest) cat that I have ever known, she always asks to go outside in silence, by queuing up at the back door.  I'm not sure how else to describe it, because, though she only a forms a line of one, she knows how to sit in such a way, with her nose pointed so purposefully toward the back door, that there is simply no doubting her intent.  She plans to go outside and she expects that one of her humans will promptly open the back door for her then hold the screen door patiently while she considers whether she really wants to step outside and, if so, whether she might like a moment to rub her cheek on the screen door before exiting.  When she is leaving home in protest, because I am doing something despicable like running the vacuum cleaner, the expression on her face as she lines up at the door is only subtly different, yet unmistakable.  If she had possessions, her bags would be packed, including letters of disapproval addressed to all the proper authorities, citing violations of Kitty Code 3-B: No Vacuum Cleaners Shall Be Run in The House.  Be sure to send us postcards, I tell her as she slips out past the vacuum cleaner.

The problem with the outdoors is that it is not always what a kitty imagined it would be.  For much of the year it is too hot, the back steps being one of the parts of the yard that is heated into submission every afternoon of the summer.  Other times of the year the outdoors is too cold, or too wet, or too windy for a kitty to linger.  And, even on the nicest of days, unless one of us humans steps outside as well, the outdoors is filled with cats, those annoying creatures that Benji wants little to do with since reaching the age of what my parents call "the entity," or the older, opinionated, female cat who no longer wishes to consort with all those lowly felines.  So, inevitably, and very often quickly, within a few minutes of leaving the house, Benji wants to come back inside.  This time, because we can't see her lining up outside the door, she yells and we come running to repeat the process of opening the back door then holding the screen door patiently while she considers whether she really wants to step inside and, if so, whether she might like a moment to rub her cheek on the screen door before entering.

Ideal for kitties: an open door

Most of the time, after trotting back inside with a How could you put me out there in that heat/cold/wet/wind? meow, Benji resumes reign of the household from one of her sleeping spots.  Occasionally, though, shocked by the inhospitable weather in the backyard but still wanting to go outside, Benji decides that she will instead go to the Other Outside so she queues up at the other door, the door leading from the kitchen to the carport.  Seriously? we ask her when she sets her nose in the direction of the Other Outside, Doesn't a kitty know that when it's cold and windy in the backyard, that it is also cold and windy in the front yard?

But I can't really find fault with Benji for insisting that the Other Outside, the outdoors that conforms to her idea of how the outdoors should be, exists, given how much time I spend gazing out of windows and thinking about my own, human version of the Other Outside, or what Cheri Huber describes as the alternate, parallel reality that exists simultaneously with this reality, and in that one, everything is as it should be.  In other words, the land of shoulds.  Where I know what I should know, I do what I should do, I feel what I should feel, and I always make the right decision.  The problem with the Other Outside is that, while it seems helpful, like a map or a guide toward what I want for my life, it is actually a constant reminder of all that I am lacking and all that I am not.  Because, in reality, I can't work full time and get enough sleep and take care of myself and be a good girlfriend to Lee and get everything else on my to-do lists done.  I can only do a few of those things on the list.  And I'm hardly going to feel good about getting those few things done if I am constantly thinking about all of the other things that I could also be getting done, if only I was living as I should be, as I do in the fictional Other Outside.

So, this year, I resolve to spend more time being outside, working in the garden with Benji or walking along our local Boggy Creek or hiking in the woods with Lee, and less time thinking about the Other Outside.

Barton Creek in January