a wink and a whorl

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I follow Jane Grigson’s advice I when I buy a cauliflower. ‘If the cauliflower looks back at you with a vigorous air, buy it; if it looks in need of a good nights sleep, leave it where it is.‘ Apart from the fact we could debate what vigorous looks like, it’s a good rule of thumb when choosing most fruit and vegetables. Except avocados that is, which taste better when they appear to have been on the razzle two nights in a row. It’s a rule of thumb that can also be applied to people, which in my case – sadly no razzle, just a wakeful toddler – means leaving me exactly where I am.

Rather confusingly Italians sometimes call winter cauliflower, broccolo. Not my fruttivendolo Gianluca though, he calls them cavolo, which usually means cabbage but is also an abbreviation of cavolfiore which literally means cabbage flower. To which we could reply ‘Che cavolo’ which beyond meaning ‘What cabbage’, is a response anything flummoxing or vexing, including cauliflower etymology. Rather than looking like flowers, I’ve always thought good cauliflowers with unblemished creamy-white whorls look like cumulus clouds, the ones that cluster in an otherwise blue sky.

If a cauliflower looks vigorous and its florets are tight and thick as thieves, then you need to be vigorous in your approach and armed with a sharp knife to cut away the outer leaves and thickest core before splitting the head into manageable florets. A good cauliflower should withstand a rolling boil. I am a big fan of boiled and braised vegetables and – with the exception of potatoes and parsnips – will take them over roasted almost every time, cauliflower, calm and creamy is no exception.

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Today’s recipe started life as another recipe, or part of one at least, the dressing for one of my favourite salads, puntarelle, the mere mention of which has me shooting off on a sentimental tangent that involves my friend Alice, a trattoria in an irritatingly pretty piazza, a paper tablecloth, Pyrex glasses, a litre of wine that was two steps away from battery acid, a grumpy waitress, braised rabbit and a bowl of pale-green curls of gently bitter salad with anchovy dressing.

I’d heard about an idiosyncratic salad practically unknown outside Rome (this is nine years ago,) a salad of catalonian chicory with dandelion-like leaves called punatelle that once trimmed, cut and immersed in cold water curled in much the same way as Shirley Temple’s hair. Pale green curls that are then dressed with a pungent and loudly delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, olive oil and vinegar. Neither the wine or waitress could spoil our delight in the puntarelle salad we had – in the proprietorial manner of new arrivals in Rome – so happily discovered.

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Nine years later, less proprietorial, happily faded and pretty comfortable about still being in Rome, I prepare puntarelle a lot during it’s winter season. I say prepare, curl, pulse and assemble is a better description. Some people say the dressing should be made with a pestle and mortar, but I make mine with my immersion blender, and not just for speed, but because I like the more consistent, thicker dressing a few pulses creates. I also prefer lemon juice to vinegar, it gives the dressing a citrus-sharp but less aggressive edge.

Having made too much dressing last week, and with a dish of cauliflower, eggs and aioli dressing I ate at 40 Maltby street a few weeks back still a pertinent food memory, I made an improvised lunch of boiled cauliflower, black olives, hard-boiled eggs and punterelle dressing.

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This the third platter of this assembly, which is on the one hand innocent: pale, creamy cauliflower and just boiled eggs, and on the other full of experience: dark olives, garlic, richly fishy anchovy, peppery olive oil and citrus. It is important the water you are going to cook the cauliflower in is well salted, as this is what is needed to bring out the otherwise shy flavors in the cauliflower. I used taggiasca olives that are district, chewy and taste somewhere between dried plums and the leather wristband I used to chew throughout double chemistry with Mrs Toomer (not unpleasant, the wristband that is). Try and find good quality olive oil packed anchovies, cheap anchovies, like cheap olive oil and cheap mascara are best avoided.

Innocence and experience, and a brilliant combination of favours that compliment, tussle and then compliment again before giving you the culinary equivalent of a wink. I think it is delicious. Eat while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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Cauliflower with hard-boiled egg, black olives and anchovy-lemon dressing

  • a head of cauliflower
  • 2 cloves of garlic
  • 6 anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
  • 8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons of freshly squeezed lemon juice
  • a handful of black olives (ideally taggiasca olives in extra virgin olive oil)
  • 4 eggs
  • black pepper

Pull away the tough outer leaves, cut away the hard central stem and then break the cauliflower into florets. Drop the florets into a large pan of well-salted boiling water and cook until tender to the point of a knife. Drain and set aside.

Make the dressing either in a pestle and mortar (in which case first pound the garlic, then add the anchovy fillets and grind into a rough paste before stirring in the olive oil and lemon) or with an immersion blender or small food processor (in which case add all the ingredients, pulse rather than blast into a consistent but slightly textured dressing.)

Meanwhile hard-boil the eggs. Once the eggs are done plunge them into cold water until they are cool enough to handle, tap the shells , peel them and then slice each egg in two.

Arrange the florets in a shallow dish (cutting any large ones in two), scatter over the olives, arrange the hard-boiled egg halves, grind over some black pepper before spooning over the dressing. Serve while the cauliflower and eggs are still warm.

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66 Comments

Filed under anchovies, cauliflower, food, lemons, olive oil, rachel eats Rome, Rachel's Diary, recipes, supper dishes, Uncategorized, vegetables

66 responses to “a wink and a whorl

  1. i can see this becoming a standard already. But how do you ever have left over puntarelle dressing? I always just dump it all on, so that it’s there at the bottom of the bowl ready to be sopped up with a piece of bread. (which is the real excuse for making puntarelle if you ask me)

    • rachel

      I agree, which is why I now make double sometimes triple quantities, more also prevents the inevitable dressing explosion as the blade hits the oil – Rx

  2. Fabulous—a new way with cauliflower. Since living in Puglia, I have absolutely fallen in love with it. Something about this soil makes it almost sweet and so incredibly versatile. But it must be especially nice with the lemony, olive-y, anchovy-rich dressing. This idea will be inserted into the menu rotation a casa nostra without delay.

    • rachel

      One of the courses in one of the most memorable meals of my life (with 9 noisy musicians in masseria in Pulgia) was cauliflower with oil and lemon, maybe the best cauliflower I have ever eaten. Did i mention I am coming to visit you X

  3. Yum how delicious! Love the whorl-y plastic(?) plate too..x x

  4. What a great introduction and fantastic recipe. I think I’ve encountered far too many vegetabales that could do with a “good night’s sleep”, but then I feel guilty because that invariably means “going in the bin” so I rescue them …
    I’m with you on the boiling-rather-than-roasting thing. Definitely a delicious way to enjoy veggies.

    • rachel

      I agree, I think if you encounter veg in need of a nights sleep in your fridge (which I do on a regular basis being as I am a neglectful cook) i think you have to take responsibilty for them. It is a delicious way, I imagine would work with broccoli and beans too

  5. Very nice. I really like the dressing recipe!

  6. I remember that dish well. The fruit and veg buyer at work always says how difficult it is to select great cauliflowers – to find that vigorous look, that is. They are the hardest, he says. But when you find the right one, it really can make your meal. My grandfather used to grow some delicious ones, so sweet and full of flavour they didn’t need any dressing. I can only imagine what a great role they would had played in this dish.

    • rachel

      Xox…i think it was your choice. the lovely thing about writing this recipe was that I know you can get great, vigorous cauliflower in the Uk and states too…you can also find the sad ones.

  7. Love cauliflower – sounds delicious with the dressing….. I like grilled veg, but boiling or steaming better suits cauliflower, broccoli, and Brussels sprouts…. Yum!

  8. So THAT’s what I’m going to do with the sprightly cauli i bought on the market yesterday ….

  9. So much sage advice in this post! From the mascara to the avocados. And it’s funny but there’s been a lot of talking about puntarelle lately in our house – mostly about how sad it is we can’t get it here.

  10. jo

    i made this exact same thing (missing the olives – good idea) with sprouting broccoli in place of cauliflower earlier this week – it was great!

  11. Gorgeous salad. Cheap mascara, oy, I am guilty (but I spend the money I save on good olive oil, so…) —S

  12. I’ve never head of puntarelle dressing before, but it sounds so pungent and interesting! Especially as a nice sharp contrast to hearty yet simple eggs and cauliflower. :)

  13. Oh, you brilliant, brilliant thing, you.

    And lucky me, for having a Grigson-approved cauli, already on hand.

  14. Eha

    Lovely recipe with a delightful dressing – have made it often without knowing its name. Must admit one difference in the making ~ I personally do not ever put any vegetable in water: too big a loss of vitamins and minerals – but, :) ! , if you fully drink the cooled down cooking water afterwards you are ‘off the hook’ – that is where all the goodness can be found!!

    • rachel

      I know I know, I occasionally drink the spinach water and I know I should do so more. It is a good dressing, especially at this time of year. Hope you are well? Rx

      • Eha

        Thanks for not getting ‘stroppy’ when I begin ‘lecturing’ ~ it’s in the ‘blood’ and learning :) ! Not well, but trying – am awfully stubborn :) !

        Keep trying oxo

  15. laura

    Cavolo! You’re really really good!

  16. Amy

    Excellent post, loved your writing – something that’s pretty much always excellent but this post felt like it deserved an extra shout out, for some reason. And the dish looks very very good, and a very nice combination of creamy and sharp. Like you I’ve come to prefer almost every single vegetable being boiled or braised versus roasted.

    PS This is a completely useless thing to note, but the kids I nanny here have the same plate as Luca – the one with the little whirly worm. Very cute.

    • rachel

      Thanks Amy you are too kind and yes boil and braise, boil and braise. Luca refuses to eat off any other plate, except ice cream that is he will eat that from anywhere, even the floor….

  17. What gorgeous words of advice, i’m going to remember that next time i’m out buying my veggies :) Your writing is beautiful. Jennie

  18. your writing would make me crave anything. fantastic!

  19. Very entertaining writing and a wonderful warm salad.

  20. I never thought I could be so persuaded of a cauliflower’s deliciousness by the reading about it – totally inspired me to rush out and buy one!

  21. andreamynard

    The cauliflower will probably give me a punch for ignoring it, but puntarelle dressing is just what I need to liven up my chicory, thank you! I have lots growing (unlike the other winter salad crops) have eaten too much of it and need a way of getting us all interested again. The cauliflower does look lovely too.

    • rachel

      You are growing chicory! Lucky lucky you I love the stuff, whencan I come round for chicory and puntarelle dressing? – R

  22. Your words and photos both have a ray of sunlight. Which makes the idea of winter slightly more palatable. I like the cloudy colours, white and beige and yellow, and the bold taste. On my list. xx

    • rachel

      There was sun…and then it went. the important thing was though that there was sun. Sending you a ray of sun and some virtual warmth (try the salad, try the salad) -Rx

  23. Loving the swirly plate, touch of retro on the wonderful marble. Oh and I feel terrible for not having yet prepared puntarelle, will see my new veg man about that first thing tomorrow!

    • rachel

      For me puntarelle and Alice are inextricably linked….and I feel bad now as the grumpy waitress is no longer grumpy with us..

  24. I can’t believe I missed this. It looks delicious, and I have everything here in the house to make it for lunch tomorrow It sounds delicious.

  25. Love the sound of this – have a vigorous looking cauli but no eggs (just moved house and not only are the pickings lean, I can’t find one of the boxes of pots/pans which is a nightmare!). Will try this soon though and let you know…I still make your Farinata which is very much loved in this house!

  26. I am so making this for dinner this week… aside from puntarelle and their dressing being one of my favorite things in Rome, my love for boiled cauliflower and olive taggiasche I am avoiding carbs these days and always on the lookout for something that will make my tastebuds sing.

  27. Your writing is a real treat. I’m always excited when I see a new post pop up in my feedly list because I know it will contain lovely insights into life in Italy and something that I need to cook right away. So of course, this looks like the perfect winter salad. Rich with all of my favorite salty things but still wholesome and filling from the egg and cauliflower.

  28. Graham Jepson

    I prepared it exactly as you described – che delizie! Innocence and experience – says it all.
    (No need to respond – I know you will send a nod and a wink.)

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