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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Ahi Nori Wraps

Food blog May 2015-0757Months and months ago, I showed you photos of a tiny shack in Kauai and promised you my own rendition of their signature ahi nori wraps: thick, squared-off cylinders of seared ahi and spears of cucumber, surrounded by brown rice, doused with a mysterious wasabi sauce and wrapped up in a spinach flour tortilla lined with a sheet of nori. A delightful cross between a burrito and sushi, they were one of our favorite meals while on the island. But then, you know, life, with all those pesky obligations, insisted on happening, and now we are a full school year later and I’m finally getting around to it. It’s a cringe-worthy cliche to declare that these are worth the wait, but since we are now on our second version of them in two weeks, I’m going to take the chance.

Food blog May 2015-0742Since it has been so long, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on what make these funny little sushi / burrito mash-ups so good. Well-spiced, lightly seared tuna, still rare or even raw in the middle, is of course the main reason. But only slightly secondary are the issues of texture and temperature. As you’ll know if you like sushi, there’s something amazing about a perfect piece of ahi – it’s meltingly soft but, when seared around the edges, it becomes softness with a bouncy chew. It is hot on the outsides, but still cool in the interior. Flanked by cucumbers, you get a fresh, bright, cold crispness, and the chewy strangeness of the nori seaweed layer is somehow perfect.

Food blog May 2015-0743Food blog May 2015-0744Food blog May 2015-0749These also offer perfectly contrasting tastes. Of course there’s the glorious fresh fish flavor, but there’s also nostril-piercing heat from the wasabi, and saltiness from the seaweed, and the welcome nutty blandness of the rice. Because I can’t leave well enough alone, I thought the addition of rich, creamy avocado blitzed into a velvet puree with a touch of mayonnaise would be the right vehicle for the wasabi, and insisted on crusting the tuna itself with sesame seeds, lime zest, and some red pepper flakes as well as the customary salt and pepper sprinkle before searing it off.

Food blog May 2015-0751Food blog May 2015-0752We ate these in big gulps, then went back for more. One wrap is plenty for a dinner, especially if you wisely offer yourself a side of mango-spiked salad or lightly sautéed vegetables, but we are not always wise, and opted instead to make a third wrap and split it. Still, even the resulting food coma couldn’t deter our enthusiasm about the meal.

Food blog May 2015-0753If you aren’t comfortable with raw fish, you can of course cook yours all the way through, though if you’re going to do that I wouldn’t bother with the pricey ahi. Cut a nice filet of salmon into long strips and crust and sauté or broil until just cooked through. Or, if you want to go an even easier route, sprinkle some lime juice over a few layers of smoked salmon and wrap that up inside instead. Food blog May 2015-0756

Ahi Nori Wraps
Makes 4
For rice and sauce:
1 avocado, pitted and peeled
juice from ½ a lime
¼ cup mayonnaise
1-2 tablespoons wasabi paste or sauce
(alternatively, you could use about ¼ cup of wasabi mayonnaise)
2 cups cooked brown rice, warm or at room temperature
For the tuna:
½ tablespoon coarse salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
zest of 1 lime
2 tablespoons untoasted sesame seeds
½ pound ahi or other sushi grade tuna, cut into long rectangles that are about 1×1 inch at the ends
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
To assemble:
1 seedless cucumber, halved lengthwise and cut into long, thin planks (thinner is better – too thick and they won’t roll up well. Go for translucent, but be careful!)
4 spinach tortillas
4 sheets nori

 

  • In a small bowl or blender, combine the avocado, the lime juice, the mayonnaise, and the wasabi paste. If you have wasabi mayonnaise you like the flavor and heat level of, you could use that instead. I wanted my mixture a little spicier than my wasabi mayo, so I opted to make my own mix. Whiz together with a standard or immersion blender until a completely smooth, pale green puree forms; it will be too thick to pour.
  • Combine the puree with the cooked brown rice and taste for seasoning. Adjust as needed, then set aside.
  • For the tuna, combine the salt, black and red pepper, lime zest, and sesame seeds on a small plate. Carefully dredge each log of tuna in the mixture by rolling it through the seasoning. When all are well coated, heat the vegetable oil and sesame oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the crusted tuna carefully, watching out for oil spatters, and sear about 1 minute on each side (for raw in the center), or until done to your liking. I overcooked mine, as you can see from my photos; I would have preferred red, not pink, in the center.
  • When tuna is done to your liking, remove from pan immediately and set aside.
  • To assemble, lay out your tortillas and place a sheet of nori in the center of each one. Lay 4-5 planks of cucumber atop the nori, all facing in the same direction. Add about ½ cup of the rice and sauce mixture per wrap, and spread this out to the edges of the cucumber planks. Lay one log of ahi in the center of each one in the same direction as the cucumber planks, then wrap up like a burrito, carefully folding in the edges.
  • To serve, cut on a bias and, if you’re feeling fancy, stand one half up like I’ve done above to show off the interior.
  • Eat immediately, and lick your fingers with no shame.