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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Arugula and Feta Pasta with Lemon Garlic Crumbs

2015 Blog August-0259I know what you must be thinking. I rhapsodize about meatballs, toss around semi-exotic ingredients you might have to go to multiple stores to obtain, advocate that you turn zucchini into noodles, and then disappear for almost three weeks with only a few photos to tide you over.

2015 Blog August-0227During those weeks, I must admit I didn’t cook much. We were traveling, making our annual pilgrimage to Oregon where we attended a wedding, stayed with good friends, single-handedly prevented the Cascadia quake by staying in a hotel that overlooked the ocean, N. bought a banjo, and I pulled a muscle in my back. (We also discovered the glory that is a chocolate stout float, but more on that in a few weeks.)

2015 Blog August-0237Not much makes you look forward to an eight-hour car ride less than having a pulled muscle in your lower back. Apart from trying to get comfortable and working to stay awake through the muscle relaxers I was taking (man do those things knock you out!), I sorted through what had become unexpectedly difficult to accomplish without the muscle just left of your spine: spitting out toothpaste without dribbling it down your front. Shimmying into a pair of shorts – your feet and ankles are suddenly so far away! Rolling over in bed. Hobbling across the street at a snail’s pace while the kindly drivers on either side regret waving you forward. Filling and then draining off a pot of pasta water.

2015 Blog August-0240Cooking, thus, when we got home, had to be simple at first, and required some of N.’s help for the parts that had become surprisingly heavy. Fortunately, I’d been hoping to repeat this simple little pasta dish: capellini, also known as angel hair, tangled together with lightly wilted arugula and salty crumbles of feta, topped with an aromatic, heavy dose of crunchy breadcrumbs flavored with garlic and lemon zest. The whole thing only uses two pans, it requires only a handful of ingredients, none particularly exotic, and it takes a mere twenty minutes or so to throw together, since most of the prep and cooking of the breadcrumbs can be done while you’re waiting for the pasta water to boil.

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2015 Blog August-0246If you aren’t accustomed to having arugula in your fridge, you should be – it’s a wonderful go-to green for salads and a refreshingly different take on pesto. Delicate but peppery, it’s also called rocket and is one of my favorite salad bases. As for the topping, I’m using panko – those delightfully brittle shards that are Japan’s answer to the breadcrumb, and unquestionably my favorite type. You wouldn’t want them for your meatballs, where the goal is light, springy absorbency, but once toasted, they make an addictively perfect crisp topping for basically anything. Since they don’t taste like much, I’ve bumped up the flavor with lemon zest, a healthy bit of grated garlic, and some red pepper flakes for N., who likes that hit of warmth on the back of the throat.

2015 Blog August-0249Coming home at the beginning of August is a bittersweet proposition, because at once it means a glory of summer fruits and more vegetables at the Farmers’ Market than my market bag or my wallet can handle, but it also means the first day of classes looms ever closer on the horizon. And as nice as it is to be home, the fact that it will be at least another year before we see all the friends we just hugged goodbye is a pang quite different from my slowly healing back muscle. This week, then, we’ve covered a bit of the bitter, with the peppery greens and the briny sharpness of the cheese. Next week, inspired by a bourbon-loving friend I didn’t get to see on this trip, I want to make up for it with something sweet.

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Arugula and feta pasta with lemon garlic crumbs
Serves 4 very hungry diners, or 6 less hungry diners
6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 cup panko breadcrumbs
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 tablespoon grated garlic (from about 4 cloves)
1 tablespoon lemon zest (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
8 ounces capellini or angel hair pasta
¼ cup fresh lemon juice (from 1 large or 2 small lemons)
5-6 ounces baby arugula
4 ounces feta, crumbled

 

  • Heat a large, lidded pot of well-salted water over high heat. When it comes to a boil, add the capellini and cook according to package directions. While you wait for the water to boil, however, make the breadcrumbs and prep the other ingredients, as detailed below.
  • Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. When it is shimmering, add the panko breadcrumbs, the salt, and the red pepper flakes. Toast over medium heat, stirring almost constantly to brown evenly and prevent burning.
  • When the crumbs are golden, which for me was about 2-3 minutes, add the grated garlic and lemon zest and stir well to evenly distribute. The zest and garlic will want to clump up, so stir assertively. Cook, stirring, for another 1-2 minutes until the mixture is fragrant and nicely browned. Remove from heat and set aside.
  • By now, your water should be close to or already boiling. Add the pasta and stir to submerge it. Cook with the lid off to al dente, following the package directions. As soon as the pasta is done, drain immediately into a colander or strainer.
  • Add the remaining 4 tablespoons of olive oil to the now-empty pasta pot and swirl it over medium-low heat to evenly coat the bottom of the pot. Add the lemon juice, then the pasta, and toss with tongs to coat evenly with oil and lemon juice.
  • Dump in the arugula and use the tongs to gently integrate it with the pasta. When the arugula is gently wilted, turn off the heat and sprinkle in the crumbled feta cheese. Use tongs again to toss so the cheese is evenly distributed.
  • Serve hot in large, shallow bowls, and top each serving with about 2 tablespoons of the crumbs.