Surprise, it’s Cauliflower

When I got my farm box, heads of cauliflower would turn up often, which poses a difficulty since I am the only member of this household who genuinely likes them.

English cuisine does not offer many reasons to like this vegetable, I have decided. It is boiled to death and served alongside Sunday roasts. Then there is cauliflower cheese which, yummy as it can be, can also be monotonous.

My own heritage in this department comes from my university days. I spent most of my time during university at my friend Robin’s house. She lived with her lovely, ever-so-slightly eccentric uncle Justin in Neuilly, a pleasant suburb immediately to the north-west of Paris.

By the time I met him, in the mid-1980s, Justin had stopped working and spent his days (and nights) in front of what was then a modern-looking computer screen set atop a vast paper-strewn workstation which took up a good portion of the large open plan living and dining area. He was trying to come up with a programme to predict stock market activity, at least, this is my memory of his explanation.

I am getting to the cauliflower bit. Since Justin was not sure how long it would take to develop this programme, the budget for dinner was always cautious. The kitchen was a tiny galley and it was in this kitchen that Robin and I cooked our meals. Justin liked cauliflowers. He occasionally bought them to supplement the potatoes we lived on. I should add that I didn’t actually live with them, but did spend, on average, 6 days and nights a week there. And they kindly put up with me.

Most nights, dinner was Potato Surprise: boiled potatoes that were then diced and sauteed with sliced onions, carrots and lardons (diced smoked bacon pieces). Cauliflower, when available, would replace or even supplement, the potatoes. What I learned from Justin is that the leaves are also edible. I don’t know where he learned this. He is from Arkansas, I think, so maybe that explains it. He would get annoyed with us for throwing them out, so we chopped and boiled them, and added them too. They are surprisingly nice.

We always had a green salad as well, because I couldn’t fathom dinner without one, made with Batavia lettuce, since it was Paris and well before the advent of bagged mixes. And bread and cheese, I think; again, since it was Paris.

I haven’t thought about Justin and Robin and that flat in Neuilly in a while. Cauliflowers may well be my madeleine.

Cauliflower Surprise

1 cauliflower, with leaves
1 bay leaf
About 2 tbsp vegetable oil, such as rapeseed, plus a bit more
1 tbsp unsalted butter (optional)
1 tsp dried thyme
1 large onion, chopped
1 large carrot, finely chopped
About 50-70 g lardons
Sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to the boil with the bay leaf. Add a large pinch of salt. Meanwhile separate the cauliflower into florets and reserve the leaves. When boiling, add the florets and leaves and cook until just tender. Time depends on the size of the florets but the leaves only need a minute or so; remove them with tongs or a slotted spoon and let dry. Chop coarsely and set aside. When the florets are almost completely tender, but not boiled to death, drain well.

In a large frying pan, combine the oil, butter if using, onions and carrots. Cook over medium high heat, stirring occasionally, until soft and golden, 5-8 minutes. Stir in the thyme and a generous pinch of salt.

Add the florets and leaves, and a bit more oil if it seems dry. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower gets browned on one side at least. Season lightly and stir well to combine.

Add the lardons and cook, stirring, until browned. Taste and adjust seasoning. Serve immediately.

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