Saffron and Cauliflower, Italian Style
Cauliflower has been all the rage lately. From cauliflower steaks on restaurant menus, to cauliflower pizza crusts on the tables of low-carb eaters, the big white brassica is everywhere.
It’s lovely to see, since cauliflower is a fantastic veggie. I know I am happier to see a cauliflower steak on a menu as the vegetarian option than some perfunctory pasta, thrown on there just to keep the meatless people from walking out. Yes, the cauliflower steak says “This chef is actually trying!” and that is a good thing.
So what is exciting about cauliflower, all of a sudden? One of the great qualities of cauliflower is its whiteness. You see, unlike its flashier green relative, broccoli, cauliflower takes on tints. Like a canvas with a coat of gesso, the pure white of the cauliflower is a blank space that can be splashed with color. Even when left white, the cauliflower is a perfect white backdrop for drizzles of sauce and sprinkles of herbs or nuts.
For this dish, I wanted to employ the potent color, flavor, and aroma of saffron. The dried pistils of the saffron crocus may be the most expensive spice known to man. We see them most often mixed with rice, like risotto Milanese, Spanish Paella, Persian Tah-Dig, or Indian Saffron Rice. Puddings like Kheer, an Indian rice pudding, also sprinkle the orange tendrils into pale white rice, with milk. Using saffron with darker colored foods is kind of a waste of expensive pigment, even if you do love the scent and taste, but you do see it in some recipes.
A key part of getting the most out of your saffron is cooking with it properly. Saffron experts suggest either dry toasting or even microwaving the strands briefly, then crumbling. It also works to saute them in oil, then let the pigment steep into the fat. Simmering it with rice is the classic way to pull the color out. Always let the saffron have time to give up its essence.
Another step that you shouldn’t skip is the blanch. I know we are all into roasting and searing, but giving your cauliflower a nice blanch in boiling water is really important. The moist cooking just softens it a bit, without drying it out or making it tough. Then you can throw it in the hot pan and toss it around in the intensely flavored saute.
Sun-dried tomatoes are another intense, concentrated flavor boosting ingredient. Just soak them and chop them finely, and they add deep, sweet tomato goodness.
This is a good side to put with your pizza or pasta, or for that matter, it would be a great topping for pizza. To make it more of a main, chop some pistachios or walnuts and sprinkle them liberally over the dish at serving. A few chick peas would be good, too.
As the winter grey subtly drains your energy, turn to bright, sunny saffron for a bit of cheer. You’ll love to look at it almost as much as you’ll enjoy eating it.
Italian Cauliflower with Saffron
1/2 cup sun-dried tomato halves, soaked in warm water
2 small cauliflowers (about 2 1/2 pounds total, before trimming) cut into florets
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 generous pinch saffron, about 1/4 teaspoon
1 tablespoon freshly grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, lightly crushed
1 teaspoon whole coriander seeds, lightly crushed
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
freshly cracked black pepper
Bring a big pot of water to a boil, and salt it. Drop in the cauliflower and blanch for 2 minutes. Drain and let dry.
In a large saute pan, heat the olive oil and saute the onions over medium-high heat. Stir until they are sizzling and threaten to stick, then drop the heat to medium-low and let cook for at least ten minutes, up to an hour.
When the onions are golden and tender, add the saffron, zest, seeds, salt and pepper. Stir and toss to mix, then add the cauliflower and stir and toss to coat. Cover then pan and leave on very low heat for about 5 minutes, to finish cooking the cauliflower and steep the saffron into the dish.