Something to be said for oft-overlooked cauliflower

CHEF'S CORNER

Chef's Corner

October 23, 2002|By Mike Tauraso | Mike Tauraso,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Growing up in a second-generation Sicilian family had its share of benefits and challenges. What Dad said was law, and Mom just enforced the constitution.

I remember vividly having to leave the kickball game at 6 p.m. so I could be in bed no later than 7 p.m., even though we had a couple more hours of sunlight. When all of the other kids wore jeans and sneakers to school, I was most often dressed in some conservative corduroylike outfit that looked as if I were going to Wall Street instead of the first grade.

In retrospect, the discipline made me a better man. When I reminisce about my childhood, my complaints are humorous and my recollection of growing up with tough love is really a tribute to my parents' dedication to their children.

When Moe Dillion's mom packed her a bologna sandwich for lunch, my mom made us cold chicken cutlets on semolina bread along with a Tupperware container of marinated olives and a piece of hard cheese.

When Jeffery Lyons dined on peanut butter and jelly, Ho Ho's and a soda, we got a real sandwich with pistachio-studded mortadella, prosciutto, capicolla ham and whatever cheese that was around stuffed in a hunk of Italian bread from Marchioni's Italian Store. So, the food alone made the strict upbringing digestible.

Cauliflower and pasta or pasta with cauliflower was a dish my mom would make almost weekly when the weather began to turn cooler and we knew that winter was just around the corner.

This was a simple peasant-style stew with cauliflower, spaghetti (the only time that it wasn't a sin to break the spaghetti before it was cooked and to cook the pasta past al dente), a hint of red pepper flakes, really good olive oil, chicken stock, garlic and freshly grated pecorino-Romano cheese. Simply heaven, and to this day probably one of my favorite meals.

It wasn't until years after culinary school and well after apprenticing in Washington that my fondness for cauliflower made it a staple ingredient in my professional culinary pantry.

After all, it has never been presented to us with the excitement and appeal of, let's say, asparagus or wild mushrooms. Do you remember the last time you dined at the Four Seasons Hotel and the waiter asked you if you would like a side of cauliflower? I don't even remember cooking cauliflower in school.

Let's face it, an a-la-carte offering of this vegetable on a restaurant menu just doesn't sell.

Years after owning my own restaurants and preparing this perceived-as-unexciting vegetable to many customers in many different ways, my personal love for this vegetable remains true. Maybe because to me it tastes great or maybe in some strange way this food sparks happy memories of growing up.

Food has always been my first love. My style of cuisine has been influenced by many chefs, restaurants, customers, family and by the industry as a whole. When I was green and making my bones in the business, I marveled at many styles and trends.

I remember the first time I used a ring mold and a squeeze bottle to assemble a dish that looked like the cover of Gourmet magazine. I really thought that I had arrived.

I remember working with chefs who created dishes that had more ingredients than the Yankees have had championships. Again, I thought I had made it.

I have worked with specialty ingredients that I honestly thought should have stayed on the creatures they came from, and I have read menus that required a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a language-translation manual to comprehend. To each his own.

The picture-perfect plate of food that takes an engineering degree to assemble and needs a panel of experts to decipher the ingredient list just doesn't do it for me anymore.

Give me a piece of cod, fluke or swordfish the day it was caught. Drizzle it with the best olive oil you can find, sprinkle it with kosher salt, and rub fresh black pepper on it. Grill it, broil it or pan-roast it, it doesn't matter. Plate it, squeeze a lemon over top, and dig in. That's the ultimate. Simplicity at it's best.

Cauliflower evokes this same culinary simplicity. A true peasant-style food with character, intense flavors and honesty.

Mike Tauraso is owner and executive chef of the Tasting Room in Frederick.

Pasta With Cauliflower

Serves 6

1 head cauliflower (rough-cut with the core removed)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

crushed red pepper flakes to taste

1/2 head fresh garlic (peeled, sliced thin)

1 quart chicken stock or water

No. 1 spaghetti (broken into 2 or 3 sections)

1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley (rough-chopped)

salt and pepper to taste

1 cup grated pecorino-Romano cheese

Clean cauliflower and saute it in the olive oil for a couple of minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and garlic. Stir this mixture for a couple of minutes, mainly to cook the garlic and to excite the pepper flakes.

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