Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Cauliflower via indirection

For a long time I thought I disliked Indian food. I didn't like "curry," meaning, to me, a generic bright yellow flavoring. I didn't like the spices, whatever they were. Further, Indian food gave me indigestion.

At this point I should admit that I have serious digestive tract troubles. Just about any food can give me indigestion. It wasn't until my late twenties that my condition acquired a diagnosis beyond "Jewish stomach" (really), Krohn's Disease (ruled out), or stress of the hysterical female variety. In April 2000 I began a medication regime that allows me to eat like a fairly normal person. By this I mean just about anything is fair game in small portions. Huge meals are out. I'm also inordinately sensitive to anything that isn't fresh. I don't mean to sound like a princess, but many's the time H-man and I have eaten the same thing, leaving me sick and him fine. Once I undercooked a meatloaf and ended up in the hosptial. Hockeyman, who also partook, drove me there and sat patiently bedside. Junk food is an invitation to pain. Hence my tendency toward organic and/or minimally processed foods. But for a long time I was certain that Indian food had an especial tendency to make me ill, and I shied away.

The truth was I had no idea about Indian food. Even writing "Indian food" is something of a misnomer: India is a huge country with a number of cuisines, which, I hasten to add, I still know little about. But it's high time to change that.

Two people were largely responsible for changing my attitude toward Indian food. One is a colleague of Hockeyman's. He is from Northern India--I don't know which state--from a Muslim family. His wife is European. One night they invited us to their apartment. There on the table was a gorgeous spread of food, much of it milk-based. I had never eaten food like that before and have not since. I am embarassed to say I wasn't sure what a lot of it was, so am at a loss to describe it. All I know is it was all fantastic. I pigged out, and was fine afterward.

The second person is a friend of mine from Mumbai. We began going out to lunch together, and one day she took me to a restaurant down University Street in Berkeley. As one travels westward on University, Indian markets and sari shops crop up. The restaurant she took me to was dark, tiny, run by a woman who knew my friend. "You want spicy?" She asked me.

"Yes, please."

She laughed at me, and I knew I would get the white girl version of the dish, a lamb stew over rice, served with naan. It was fantastic. We also frequented a place called Mount Everest, also in Berkeley, on the corner of University and Shattuck. Mount Everest took over what was once a Burger King, probably the only one in history to close for lack of business. The restaurant has been redecorated but remains rather cavernous. It doesn't matter. Their naan is wonderous, pillowy, chewy, perfect for scooping up their phenomenally generous lunches.

These lunches arrive on huge metal platters that are sectioned: the main dish, rice, cucumbers, a fiery condiment with chiles, and something milder--I think it's lentil-based. Small dishes of dal are brought out, along with a sort of rice pudding, mildly sweet and delicious if you aren't too stuffed to eat it.

Mount Everest bills itself as "Nepalese and Indian Cuisine." Being a dumb white lady, I don't know one from the other. But I do know their lamb biryani is wondrous, as is the chicken tikka masala. I ordered it the other day, and managed not to eat it all in sitting. Instead, I brought it home to Hockeyman, who happily devoured it.

My friend has moved to another state, and our luncheons are sadly infrequent. I owe her much for opening this world to me. Now I find myself staring at Madhur Jaffrey Cookbooks, and contemplating the many Laxmi Hiremath recipes found in The San Francisco Chronicle cookbook.

In retrospect, I think my dislike of Indian food was an aversion to cumin--the same spice the put me off some Mexican foods. But one of the joys of living in San Francisco Bay area is exposure to people and their cuisines. I trusted my friend, and ate where she told me to. Hockeyman was equally fortunate in meeting a colleague who took him to Indian restaurants and then opened his home to us. My palate changed. This is where cauliflower enters the picture.

In past posts I've mentioned our weekly box of organic veggies from Full Belly Farm. Contents depend on weather, season, and whatever they want to toss in. Lately we've been seriously cauliflowered. As in last night I had three heads in my fridge.

Cooking instructor and chef Jessica Prentice once mentioned in a class that she considered some vegetables friends. Leeks, for example. She loves them. Garlic and Jerusalem Artichokes are not friends, though she did not go so far as to call them enemies. She is a kind, gentle person. I doubt "enemy" is a word she'd use much under any circumstances.

Cauliflower is not a friend in our house. All the accusations leveled at other winter veggies--brussels sprouts, turnips, rutabagas--are things Hockeyman and I feel about cauliflower. Aggressive taste and texture. Does not play well with others. Does not keep well. Further, when you slice it, little bits of white, gritty floret fly everywhere.

We don't hate it. We just don't love it. But we deal with it. Last weekend I made cream of cauliflower soup. It tasted okay, but it was thin and rather bland. And it seemed to grow in the fridge until I finally--guiltily--tossed it.

Friday came, and with it, two more heads of cauliflower. I recalled eating cauliflower in Indian restaurants--soft, spicy, the brassy flavor tamed by coconut milk. Inspired, I consulted my cookbooks. In Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, I found two compelling recipes: Cauliflower, Spinach, and Potato Stir Fry with Coconut Milk and Indian Style Saute of Cauliflower and Greens.

I did not follow either recipe to the letter, using them instead as a launch pad for Stir Fry of Cauliflower, Potato, Greens, and Chicken with Coconut Milk. I did take the spice amounts from the Indian style saute.

I added chicken because Hockeyman does not consider dinner a meal unless an animal is involved. Using the contents of our farm box, the recipe ended up containing the following:

One head cauliflower, sliced

One bunch rapini greens, sliced into ribbons

Four cloves of garlic, chopped

One onion, sliced thin, prepared in separate pan to accomodate H-man

One small carrot, diced

Two russet potatoes, diced and parboiled

Four boneless chicken thighs, cut into bite-sized pieces


Garam Masala: cardamom seeds, coriander seeds, cumin, black peppercorns, and whole cloves. You toast these in a skillet, then grind them in a spice grinder. Add cinnamon and nutmeg. I left out the nutmeg. Don't like it.

Mustard Seeds





Two five ounce cans of coconut milk

Olive oil. You should really use peanut oil, but I don't have any in the house.

A little chicken broth as the mixture seemed to get dry toward the end of cooking.

Juice of one lemon.

Madison calls for lime juice and cilantro sprigs. I had neither. Hence the lemon. As for cilantro, it's hard to keep fresh: one must purchase large bunches, which rapidly spoil. Freeze cilantro and you have a blackened, mushy mess. So no cilantro.

One the side: Jasmine Rice

The recipe was quite a production. First I parboiled the potatoes and made the rice. While they cooked I sliced the vegetables and chicken. Once the starches finished, I toasted and ground the Garam Masala, then set out my two large frying pans and divided the coconut milk, spices, broth, and olive oil between them. I don't have a wok and the vegetables were so bulky there was no way I could've cooked the chicken in the same pan.

I began with the cauliflower, the vegetable that required the most cooking, then added the potatoes, garlic, and greens. The chicken cooked rapidly in the other pan.

The suprising thing about this dish was the amount of spice I used with a relatively benign result. Madison calls for one teaspoon each coriander and cumin, a half teaspoon of tumeric, and Garam Masala to taste. Tasting as I went, I added even more cumin and tumeric, serving the dish with the remaining Garam Masala. The result was mixed. Hockeyman said the potato was unnecessary. I disagreed. The cauliflower turned out the way I'd hoped: mellow, soft, coated with creamy, fattening coconut milk. The greens retained some bite, and chicken is always chicken; it's hard to screw up . But the dish was strangely bland. My guess is the spices are old and losing some bite. This is a constant irritation to me. Cookbooks are forever advising one buy spices in small quantity, replenishing frequently. This is fine advice, but most spices come in jars, and unless one is cooking for large groups, items like cumin do take time to get through. Further, good spices are expensive. Mine are Morton and Basset of San Francisco, organic, in nice reusable glass jars. But they've lost potency over time.

We have enough leftovers for lunch tomorrow....and two more heads of cauliflower to get through. Moving away from the Indian theme, there's Cauliflower gratin with tomatoes and feta, courtesy of Deborah Madison...Mollie Katzen's Hot Marinated Cauliflower with Macaroni, which I made the other night using penne....cauliflower paprikash, again from Mollie....there's plain old puree, with potato for a little body.

Soon I'll be bitching about too much cabbage.

Works cited:

Mollie Katzen: The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press, 1982, 1995.

Deborah Madison: Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. New York: Broadway Books, 1997.


Anonymous Jade Park said...

Mount Everest! I will have to check it out. :) I have seen that a kazillion times and never stopped--maybe some of the explanation that legendary Burger King closed.

I love Pegasus too.

February 02, 2007 10:31 AM  

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