Saturday, December 10, 2011

Cauliflower in mayo - Conopida cu maioneza

When you grow up Romanian, you know the taste of boiled cauliflower well, too well. One of the delights of learning to cook for myself was discovering that other, more exciting things could be done with cauliflower too -- it could be roasted to nutty sweetness, for example, or stir-fried with curry leaves, turmeric, and coconut, or pureed into a satisfying creamy soup. Cauliflower could be seriously good.

So why is it that lately I've had urges for recipes made with boiled cauliflower, of all things? It has to be something atavistic, a longing for the blander bits of my childhood. In this case, I was paging through Silvia Jurcovan's Carte de Bucate, and the single recipe she gave under "conopida" (cauliflower) was for cauliflower made with mayonnaise. Now, I despise mayo, and try to avoid it. But it turns out I had tasted a version of this recipe when visiting my uncle in Bucharest in 2006, and knew that it could be incredibly tasty.

Now, it certainly doesn't look tasty. It's a white vegetable in a white sauce when you get right down to it. But don't let looks fool you. I played quite a bit with the recipe given in Jurcovan, so much so that I'm only going to give you very vague directions. I think the keys here are not overboiling the cauliflower, and making the sauce flavourful enough to carry the veggie.

First, cut the cauliflower into large florets. I had an enormous cauliflower head (about 1800 g!), which I think was ideal. If you cut it into large enough pieces, they won't cook through as fast and they can suffer a bit of breaking. Then throw them in boiling water for around 5 minutes, but check every now and then to see if they're tender by inserting a sharp knife into a floret. Remove and drain.

In the meantime, make the dressing. Take about a cup of mayo and mix together with two cups of sour cream. I also added a couple of teaspoons of mustard and plenty of dried dill because Jurcovan told me to, and a few things Jurcovan didn't mention: four crushed cloves of garlic, a dash of Worcestershire, about half a lemon's worth of juice, a few squirts of olive oil, to say nothing of salt and pepper.

Finally, mix the thick dressing with the cauliflower -- do so gently so that the florets do not break apart. Chill, and serve! You can add some chopped parsley on top, though I might vary the leftovers tomorrow with some scallions.

Grandma's tomato soup - Supa de rosii

When I was very little, I was an incredibly difficult eater. It's hard to believe now that I have a voracious and pretty catholic appetite for food, but my family spent most of my childhood trying desperately to convince me to eat. For, as you may know, in Eastern Europe a child who doesn't eat is nothing short of a tragedy. It never seems to occur to anyone that the kid will eat when she's hungry, and so will most likely not starve. No -- she must be cajoled, threatened, forced, and constantly reminded to eat!

The upshot of this for me was that my grandmothers especially would latch on to any food item I seemed to eat with relish, and would compete with each other to provide it whenever I was at their house. I remember a visit to Bucharest when I was twelve or so. At that point, I had discovered I liked meat (an overnight sensation), and I wasn't all that finicky anymore. But there were certainly things I liked more than others... and one of these dishes was tomato soup with noodles.

The visit took place over the summer months, and I alternated between the homes of my grandparents, the way I had as a child. Every time I went to my grandmother Nadia's, she would make me tomato soup with noodles, and I would eat bowls and bowls of it, expressing a particular desire for extra noodles. So the next visit, the soup would have a greater proportion of fine, angel-hair noodles, and I'd finish it off with even more delight. I remember by the end of the summer sitting at her kitchen table, and Nadia putting a bowl in front of me: there was a mound of noodles, barely moistened by soup. This was now pasta with tomato sauce. I looked at the bowl, looked at her, and we both started laughing.

Well, despite making some delicious squash and carrot and African peanut soups in the past few weeks, what I've really been craving is tomato soup... with noodles. I called up Nadia for the recipe, and it turned out she had had the same craving. It also turned out that this soup is ridiculously easy to make -- and I simplified it even further.

You basically boil a carrot, a stick of celery, and some onion in a litre and a half or so of water, for half an hour. Then add half a litre of tomato juice, season appropriately, let it cook a little. Finally, throw in some noodles -- I used thin Italian egg noodles that come in little bird nests, crushed a bit. I made the recipe even easier by using a good vegetable bouillon instead of the real veggies (which can be crushed into the soup of course, or just removed). There are better tomato soups out there, I'm sure -- but this one is ridiculously easy, done in less than twenty minutes, and satisfies me like nothing else.