Wasabi Roasted Cauliflower

This is not the most photographically alluring side dish I’ve ever made. It doesn’t offer crisp angles or bright colors or sharp contrast. It doesn’t stack neatly or layer into a cup or offer much opportunity for props. It’s essentially just an inelegant heap of cauliflower and breadcrumbs, that most anemic of vegetables tumbled together with toasted panko.

But here’s the thing: the cauliflower is roasted for a quick half hour at very high heat, so that its florets bronze and crisp but still retain some juiciness, and then the moment it comes steaming out of the oven, you toss it in a mixture of wasabi mayonnaise and chives, and then you douse the whole tray with panko that you’ve toasted in olive oil to an intense golden crunchiness, and you toss, and you pile it onto your plate, and what you find yourself most invested in is the size of the pile, not its aesthetic potential.

I found the basis for this simple little vegetable side among my mom’s recipes during the Christmas holiday. I typically go through her cookbooks when I visit, and this one was shoved into a binder with a collection of snippets and newspaper clippings from the food section, in her own handwriting, with the word “delicious” written at the bottom. I was intrigued, so I did what any technologically-steeped child does: I snapped a photo of the recipe with my phone, and then promptly forgot about it for two months.

When I came back to the recipe a few weeks ago, I saw immediately that I would make a few changes. Mom’s version instructed me to steam the cauliflower, but I’ve never been a fan of the cabbage-y mustiness that steaming or boiling this particular vegetable produces. No, if part of the point was to elicit a crunch, then we would go the extra mile and roast it first. Hers suggested mixing regular mayonnaise with wasabi paste, and you can certainly do that if you want to adjust the level of spiciness, but there are a number of brands of pre-mixed wasabi mayonnaise available, and I happen to like the balance and ease of Trader Joe’s version, so I’m using that (though I’ve provided quantities for the mix-it-yourself-option as well). Mom probably used a standard American style breadcrumb, and toasted it in butter. I went for panko instead, for even more shattering crispness, and increased the quantity considerably for my breadcrumb-loving dining partner.

The first thing you notice when you eat this is the panko. It is toasty and deep with just enough salt, and just as you’re fully appreciating the texture, the wasabi hits with that perfumed, nostril-curling sharpness. You are taken aback at first, but you keep chewing, and then you get the tender/crisp roasted richness of the cauliflower underneath, and then you’re suddenly shoveling in another bite. We decimated our first tray in an embarrassingly short space of time, and I wanted to eat this again three days later. So we did.

The first time I made this, we piled it next to fillets of salmon. The next time, it was a side for simple pan-browned bratwurst. It was perfect with both, and the hefty dosing of breadcrumbs means you likely won’t miss having a starch. You could dress things up a bit by adding a teaspoon or two of sesame oil to the olive oil you use to toast the panko or roast the cauliflower, and only after we were washing dishes after dinner did I consider the idea of combining the panko with some sesame seeds, or adding citrus zest for extra brightness, or pulverizing some dried seaweed sheets and tossing them in with the crumbs at the last minute. If you want to flirt with these possible additions, I’d suggest about 3 tablespoons of sesame seeds, or the zest of one lemon or lime, or 2 tablespoons of seaweed – it can be fairly strong.

Wasabi Roasted Cauliflower
Serves 2-4 as a side dish
35-40 minutes
1¼ cups panko bread crumbs
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
(optional: zest from one lemon or one lime, or 3 tablespoons sesame seeds, or 2 tablespoons very finely chopped or pulverized dried seaweed)
½ teaspoon salt
1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed into medium florets (I went for large bite-size)
(optional: 1-2 teaspoons sesame oil)
1 tablespoon finely sliced chives or green onions
¼ cup + 1 tablespoon wasabi mayonnaise OR scant ¼ cup regular mayonnaise + 1 tablespoon wasabi sauce or paste, or to taste

 

  • Preheat the oven to 450F and line a 9×13 inch baking tray with aluminum foil. While the oven warms, cut up the cauliflower and spread it out in a single layer on your prepared baking tray. Toss it with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil (and the sesame oil, if you are using it). This doesn’t seem like much oil for roasting, but we are adding more fat later with the mayonnaise, so we’re taking it easy here. Roast in the preheated oven for 15 minutes, then retrieve, flip over each piece (yes, I’m serious) to expose the other side, and roast a further 15 minutes.
  • While the cauliflower is roasting, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko and the ½ teaspoon of salt (if you are using citrus zest or sesame seeds, now is the time to add that as well). Toast, stirring very often, until the panko crumbs are dark golden, probably 3-4 minutes at the outside. Set aside. (If you are using seaweed crumbs, stir them in once the panko has cooled.)
  • After you’ve toasted the panko, combine the wasabi mayonnaise (or the regular mayonnaise with the wasabi sauce or paste) and the chives or green onion in a small bowl.
  • When the cauliflower is roasted, take it out of the oven, scoop and dollop the wasabi mayo mixture onto it, and toss gently to coat. Add the toasted panko crumbs (it will seem like too much, but trust me), again toss gently to ensure even coverage, and serve immediately, scattering on any extra crumbs that are unwilling to adhere.

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Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs

I fervently hope you have at least one recipe in your arsenal that your family is just mad about. In my case, I guess that might be… tacos? Or perhaps, pardon the sub-par photography, pot pie. For my mom, this recipe is a take on Swedish meatballs from an old cookbook with a faded gold cover. Populated by numerous, lightly ethnic recipes from various European and Mediterranean regions, the cookbook is most stained and marked (Mom makes adjustments in the margins with pencil) on the “Myrna’s Meatballs” recipe. On the facing page is a photograph of a woman (Myrna, I guess) with well-teased chestnut hair, large glasses, and a round face, in the process of lighting candles over a nicely stocked dining room table.

Food Blog February 2015-0364The meatballs themselves, with their mixture of beef and pork seasoned with warm spices and draped in rich brown gravy, are definitely a take on the Swedish smorgasbord classic, and my family is nuts for them. Every year when we plan our Christmas menu, the one item that doesn’t change, it seems, is these meatballs. This past year, because the plan was all rolled appetizers, the meatballs didn’t fit the theme. Rather than skip them, however, they became Christmas Eve dinner instead. Christmas was saved. For Christmas 2015, we’ve already decided the theme will be “food on a stick” (because, I mean, what else would we do while eating the current year’s offerings than plot options for next year’s celebration?). My sister has already excitedly declared that we’ll just stab the meatballs with toothpicks, and that’s one dish done.

Food Blog February 2015-0349I must confess: I like these meatballs quite a bit, and I enjoy them when they show up in the Christmas spread, but they aren’t quite on my deathbed menu. They are tender and tasty, and the gravy in particular – depth and extra richness imparted by a mere teaspoon of instant coffee powder – is a savory treat. But something about the meatball itself made me want to fiddle.

Food Blog February 2015-0350In one of those lovely coincidences the universe sometimes hands out, the Cooks Illustrated issue in my, well, my bathroom magazine rack (what?) just happened to contain a Swedish meatball recipe, and though many of the ingredients were the same as Myrna’s immortal list, the procedure was different enough to catch my attention. Since one of the things – I think – I wanted to adjust about the family meatball of choice was the texture, it seemed fortuitous to combine-and-conquer.

Food Blog February 2015-0352The main difference in the CI version of Swedish meatballs is the way the meat is prepared. Mom and Myrna knead together the pork, beef, a handful of parsley, spices (plenty of black pepper, as Mom is always telling me), lightly sauteed onions, and  breadcrumbs soaked in milk (called a panade) in a bowl before forming soft balls. Taking a cue from sausage making, CI recipe tester J. Kenji Alt instead vigorously paddles the pork in a stand mixer with spices, baking powder for lightness, and the traditional sopping panade. A touch of brown sugar goes in too, for a background hint of sweetness. Grated onions and salt join this combination, and the whipped meat paste is only lightly combined with ground beef. This results in a tender, light meatball with a sort of springiness, achieved by stretching the meat proteins in the pork as it is paddled into a paste-y emulsion. It also more evenly distributes the fat through the meat, which seemed worth imitating.

Food Blog February 2015-0353In my version, because I also wanted to minimize the number of dishes I was going to make N. wash (our version of an egalitarian kitchen: whoever cooks, the other one has to wash up. You can guess how this usually works out), I decided to go for the food processor instead of the stand mixer. I was going to use it to make fresh breadcrumbs anyway, and decided relying on it to grate my onions and mix up the meat would keep things easy. In retrospect, this seems counter-intuitive – wouldn’t the blade tear apart the meat proteins, rather than elongating them? Yet it did produce a pleasing texture.

Food Blog February 2015-0355Mom (and Myrna) brown their meatballs in a few tablespoons of butter, then finish them by simmering them in the gravy for half an hour. The CI version, on the other hand, does more of a shallow fry in vegetable oil, cooking the meatballs completely and then just running them through a quick turn in the sauce. I decided, again, on a slight compromise. I used less oil than the CI recipe, and browned the meatballs on all sides, opting to use my electric skillet so I could control the oil temperature. Once the meatballs were golden and felt almost crisp, I drained them, whisked up the sauce in the same skillet, and returned them to the gravy for the requisite half hour simmer. Any opportunity to add flavor seemed like the right thing to do.

Food Blog February 2015-0356When we couldn’t take the aroma anymore (the dog kept appearing in the doorway of the kitchen, wagging and smiling. Their eternal hope is so encouraging and so sad), I boiled up some egg noodles, tossed them with butter and parsley, and ladled on the main event.

Food Blog February 2015-0360I don’t think I’m allowed to say that my meatballs were better than Mom’s. But they were very, very good. I think the textural change – a subtle tenseness to the exterior that burst when you bit through it, and a tightness to the meatball that was somehow not at all dense – was an improvement. I also added a reserved squeeze of dijon mustard to both the panade mixture and the sauce, and that, along with the bare hint of sweetness from the brown sugar, was a good choice.

Food Blog February 2015-0366But in addition to the texture and the minimal flavor upgrades, I think the nest of buttery noodles made the dish. When we eat these meatballs at Christmas time, they are usually part of a large spread – one little corner of a plate full of wildly varied appetizer items. Here, resting atop an eggy bed, glazed with thick gravy, we really had a chance to appreciate their deep, warm flavors.

Food Blog February 2015-0364

Mom and Myrna’s (Swedish) Meatballs
Makes 25-30 1-inch meatballs
For meatballs:
1½ cups bread crumbs (from 1-2 slices of bread)
1 cup whole milk or half and half
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
⅓ cup grated onion (about ½ of a large onion)
1 tablespoon butter
½ pound ground pork
¼ cup chopped fresh parsley + 1 tablespoon for serving
⅛ teaspoon fresh grated nutmeg
⅛ teaspoon ground allspice
⅛ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ pound ground beef
1 cup vegetable oil
For gravy:
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
½ teaspoon brown sugar
1¼ – 1½ cups beef broth
salt and pepper to taste (taste first; sodium content in beef broth may vary)
  • Using the disc shredder of a food processor or a box grater, grate the onion and cook it in 1 tablespoon butter over medium low heat until tender and translucent but not browned. Set aside to cool.
  • While onion cooks and cools, use the regular blade of a food processor to create 1½ cups bread crumbs from 1-2 slices of bread (stale is fine). Combine the bread crumbs, the milk or half and half, and 1 teaspoon of dijon mustard in a small bowl and let soak for 5 minutes.
  • Add the ground pork, cooled onions, ¼ cup parsley, salt, baking powder, brown sugar, and spices to the food processor. Squeeze out the soaked bread and add that as well.  Process for 1-2 minutes into a smooth, homogenous mixture. Pause to scrape down the sides as needed.
  • Dump the pork and bread paste into a large bowl and add the ground beef. Using your hands or a spatula (but hands work better), gently fold the beef into the pork mixture until just incorporated. With moistened hands, form generous tablespoon-sized balls (about 1 inch) from the meat mixture.
  • Heat oil in a straight-sided skillet to 350F, or until the first meatball sizzles when cautiously dipped in. I used my electric skillet to help monitor the temperature. Fry the meatballs, turning as needed, until brown on all sides – about 5 minutes. Remove and let drain on a paper towel-lined plate or tray while you make the gravy.
  • For gravy, carefully pour out the remaining oil in the pan, but leave any browned bits behind for extra flavor. These are called fond. Melt the 2 tablespoons butter over medium heat, then sprinkle in the flour and whisk together. Let flour and butter cook for 1-2 minutes into a loose, lightly golden smear. Stir in the instant espresso powder, the brown sugar, and the dijon mustard. Add the beef broth, whisking constantly to deter lumps. Continue to whisk slowly until mixture reaches a simmer and thickens to a gravy consistency. Taste for seasoning, keeping in mind flavors will intensify as it continues to simmer.
  • Add the meatballs to the gravy in the pan, cover, and cook over low to medium low heat for 30 minutes, basting the meatballs occasionally.
  • Serve hot or warm over buttered egg noodles, mashed or boiled potatoes, or with toothpicks for an appetizer or smorgasbord spread. Sprinkle the final tablespoon of parsley over the starch or the meatballs themselves for a little brightness.