Cauliflower Risotto with Spicy Pangrattato
As much as I pride myself on my broad culinary horizons, the truth of the matter is that I did not spring into existence with a perfectly formed palate. As a child, my list of dislikes was gargantuan: everything from beans to chicken to anything containing garlic was blacklisted at one time or another. The single greatest highlight of my young existence was a bland, soggy fast-food meal, and on a trip to New York City when I was eight, I amazed my parents by managing to locate a hamburger on the menu of each and every restaurant we dined in (and, perhaps more amazingly, never tired of them). My real nemesis, however - the thing that crept into my nightmares and caused me to wake up clammy and terrified - was vegetables. I loathed vegetables in every shape, size and color. The mere thought of raw tomatoes could make me gag, a face-to-face encounter with spinach left me feeling faint, and those little piles of limp broccoli I was forced to ingest before dessert negotiations could begin were as cruel a torture as my young mind could fathom. I hated all of them so much that I swore the first thing I would do when I was all grown up was to never touch a vegetable again (and presumably subsist on hamburgers for the rest of my life, but I don't think I actually thought that part through).
Luckily, with maturity came more flexible tastebuds, and before too long beans and garlic and even far more exotic foods became regular interlopers on my plate. I was not quite as quick to make my peace with vegetables, but when I finally reached that age when I began to realize that other culinary attributes could be as important as taste (such as caloric value), I embraced vegetables with all the enthusiasm you reserve for those things you embrace because they're good for you, not because they bring you any pleasure.
Then a few years later, just shy of my seventeenth birthday, I found myself in a peculiar position: as a vegetarian exchange student in Spain. Spain has been called one of the more difficult countries to avoid meat in, an assessment that may no longer be true but was certainly right on the mark in 1994. Lacking the pasta, the whole grains, the soy and tempeh and copious amounts of dairy my American diet had revolved around, I found myself left with a regimen of bread and vegetables. At home that might have been enough to make me reconsider carnivorism, but in Spain, contrary to all expectations, I thrived. Surprisingly, the variety of vegetables available was more or less the same as at home - maybe even slightly reduced - but under the deft touch of my Spanish host mother Clari, those familiar veggies took on new life. Some of them she sliced and fried crisp and light as air, while others she simmered or stewed until they were soft and succulent, liberally seasoned and drowned in garlic and olive oil. Even though they were always simple, earthy preparations, they were so novel to me, and so delicious, I felt like I could never get enough. I'll never forget one of my first nights with my host family, when over a bowl of soft-as-silk cauliflower that had been buried under fistfuls of fried garlic and homemade mayonnaise, Clari turned to me and asked, 'and how does your family prepare vegetables?' When I told her we just steamed them or cut them into skinny sticks for dipping, she looked quite aghast. 'That sounds kind of boring,' she ventured, and it wasn't hard for me to agree.
There were plenty of culinary epiphanies in store for me that year, but one of the greatest was what I learned about vegetables. Contrary to what I had grown up believing - that vegetables are the price you must pay for being healthy - in Spain, as in other countries around the Mediterranean, vegetables are not seen as penance but as celebration. Whether appearing in the fritters of Spain, the gratins of France, the mezze of Greece or the wonderful grain-based dishes of Italy, vegetables are revered for their inimitable spectrum of flavors, colors and textures. They are eaten fresh and in season or expertly preserved, and their innumerable preparations reflect the kind of no-nonsense ingenuity and imagination that centuries of poverty have inspired. While the now-well-known health benefits are recognized in these places too, it is essentially a bonus - first and foremost, vegetables are a pleasure.
As my parents are quick to remind me every chance they get, I've come a long way in the last twenty years. These days I'm not likely to turn up my nose at much of anything, and vegetables in one form or another find their way into most things I eat. But in all honesty, one thing really hasn't changed - I still don't want to eat vegetables just because they're good for me. I want to eat them because they are delicious.
Cauliflower Risotto with Spicy Pangrattato
I love, love, love this risotto - it truly reflects the genius of the Italians when it comes to vegetables. A whole head of cauliflower is melted into a pot of risotto, leaving behind no trace of its identity apart from a silkiness and subtle umami that many find hard to decipher. The other thing that sets this version apart from the usual is the crunchy, salty, spicy mixture of breadcrumbs, anchovies and chili that is showered over each serving, 'kicking it up a notch', if you will. Of course as in any risotto, the quality of your stock is key; now's the time to break out the homemade article, or if that's really not an option, source out the best your supermarket has to offer (but please, please don't use bouillon cubes, unless your cubes come from some alternate universe where they're actually good). Oh, and please do serve this risotto to your kids - though perhaps wait until they've downed their first enthusiastic forkful before telling them what's in it.
Serves: 4 as a main dish, or 6 as a side
Source: slightly adapted from Jamie's Italy, by Jamie Oliver
1 flat can anchovies in olive oil, undrained
pinch or two of hot chili flakes, or to taste
about 5-6 cups (1.25-1.5l) chicken stock
1 medium head cauliflower (about 2lbs/1kg)
6 tablespoons (90g) butter, divided
2 tablespoons (30ml) olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups (400g) carnaroli or arborio rice
1 cup (250ml) dry vermouth or white wine
1 tablespoon finely chopped rosemary
4 oz (115g/about 1 cup) freshly grated parmesan cheese
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
extra parmesan cheese, for serving
Combine the bread in a food processor with the anchovies, the oil from the can and the chili flakes and process to fine crumbs. Heat a frying pan with a splash of olive oil and sauté the crumbs over medium-high heat until browned and crispy. Set aside.
Bring the chicken stock to a simmer in a large saucepan. Tear the green leaves off the cauliflower and cut out the stalk. Chop the stalk finely and cut the florets into 1-inch pieces. Drop the florets in the pan with the stock, bring to a gentle boil, and cover.
In another, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons butter and the olive oil over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, and reserved chopped cauliflower stalk and sauté until very tender, about 15 minutes. Add the rice, stirring constantly to coat it with the oil. After about a minute the grains of rice should start to become translucent around the edges. Add the vermouth or wine, and stir constantly until it has been absorbed. Add a ladleful (about 1/2 cup) of the hot stock and a good pinch of salt, and again stir constantly until all the liquid is nearly absorbed before adding the next ladle of stock. Continue adding the stock bit by bit until the rice is about half cooked. By now the cauliflower florets should be very soft (this is important, so take the rice off the heat for a couple minutes if they're not yet there). Start adding the florets in with the stock, crushing them into the rice as you go. Continue until the rice is cooked but still retains a gentle bite and the cauliflower has all been added. This should take about 18-20 minutes in total; if you find you run out of broth before the rice is cooked, add a bit of boiling water. The finished risotto should be pourable but not soupy; all'onda in Italian.
As soon as the rice is cooked, remove the pan from the heat and stir in the rosemary, parmesan cheese and remaining 4 tablespoons of butter. Cover the pan and let it sit undisturbed for 2 minutes (not longer or it will thicken too much). Taste for seasoning, and add salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately in shallow bowls, topped with the crunchy pangrattato and additional parmesan.