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.

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