ONE OF THE most memorable vacation trips was made about 15 years ago, partly on foot, across the French island of Corsica in the Mediterranean. One day, lost on the mountainous paths and narrow, twisting roads, we were starving for lunch. There were almost no tourists in these lonely parts and no restaurants. Local families took their meals in their homes. At last, when we knocked on the door of a farmhouse and desperately asked the signora if she knew where we might buy some food, she invited us to eat at the huge dining table in her enormous kitchen.
I have forgotten most of the details of the meal -- except for the vegetable, shich was wonderful, despite its absolute simplicity. She worked roughly mashed cauliflower into a large aromatic, creamy, juicy pancack, then fried it in hot olive oil until it was entirely covered by a crackly crisp crust.
Almost 10 years later, in Paris, I met one of the supreme masters of high French cooking, chef Raymond Oliver, the owner of one of the top restaurants in Paris, the three-star Le Grand Vefour. During our wide-ranging conversation, I mentioned Corsica. Oliver said that he had read my recipe for the cauliflower pancakes, and tried them in his own kitchen and had found them "a bit rough" for a high cuisine restaurant. So he had set about "improving" the recipe. He implied he was looking for more delicacy, more of a sophisticated dish from the great city, less of Corsica, more of Paris. What was once a pancake had become a gateau . He served it to me and gave me his new recipe -- the second one, below.
You have the opportunity of preparing your cauliflower both ways -- of tasting them side by side and deciding which you prefer, country crackle or city velvet. Both recipes are wonderful ways of preparing this often mistreated vegetable. CORSICAN CAULIFLOWER COUNTY PANCAKES (4 servings) 1 large head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), leaf stalks removed, center broken into flowerets of roughly equal size 3 to 6 tablespoons olive oil 1 clove garlic, peeled and finely minced Freshly grated nutmeg Coarse crystal or kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Kitchen equipment: Cutting board and sharp knives, steamer, solid frying pan, wooden fork, spatulas and spoons, large pancake spatula, nutmeg grater.
Average time required: About 25 minutes for preparation, steaming and frying. Cooking the cauliflower
Partly cook the cauliflower by steaming them over rapidly boiling water until they are just soft -- usually in 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, set the frying pan over medium-low frying heat and lubricate its bottom with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, or more if needed. Let it get quite warm, but not really hot. Forming and Frying the Pancakes
At the last moment, before putting in the cauliflower, sprinkle the minced garlic into the frying pan. When the cauliflowerets are soft, put them into the frying pan and season with a few grinds of nutmeg, plus salt and pepper to taste. Now. working fast with a wood fork, mash the cauliflower well, pressing it down and together until if forms a single pancake about 1/2-inch thick.
Turn up the heat and fry it until the bottom is brown and crisp. Using a large spatula, carefully turn it. The pancake will not be as solid and cohesive as a batter pancake or hash brown potatoes, but it should be solid enough to turn. You may have to turn it in halves or thirds. Once turned, you can press it back together. When it is fried absolutely crisp on both sides, slide it in one piece on absorbent paper to drain the grease. Slip it at once on a hot platter, pressing it again into shape if it crumbles. Serve it in pie-shaped wedges. Add more nutmeg, salt or pepper, if you wish. RAYMOND OLIVER'S BAKED GATEAU OF CAULIFLOWER (4 servings) 1 large cauliflower, leaf-stalks removed, center seperated into flowerets of roughly equal size 3 tablespoons butter 4 egg yolks Freshly ground nutmeg Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Kitchen equipment: Lidded saucepan for boiling cauliflowerets, cutting board and sharp knives, saute pan, wooden spatulas and spoons, food processor (or electric blender or hand masher), 2-3-inch deep ceramic or china oven-proff baking dish, larger dish with water (bain-marie) in which to stand baking dish in oven.
Average time required: About 20 minutes for preparation, plus about 20 to 25 minutes oven baking. Precooking the Cauliflowerets
Half-fill the saucepan with water and heat it up to a bubbling boil. Drop in the cauliflowerets and simmer them until they are just soft -- usually in about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, set the saute pan on medium-low frying heat and lubricate its bottom with 2 tablespoons of butter. Let it get quite warm, but not hot enough to brown. The moment the cauliflowerets are soft, drain and dry them, then put them into the butter in the saute pan and stir them around, turning them over, to gild them very lightly. While this is in progress, preheat your oven to 350 degrees. Pureeing and Baking
The moment the cauliflowerets are done, transfer them, plus all the hot butter, to the work bowl of a food processor (or the jug of an electric blender, or a mixing bowl for hand mashing), then turn on the motor until they are coarsely pureed -- usually in a couple of one-second bursts. Check after each burst. Then blend into the puree, with one more half-second burst, the egg yolks, plus salt and pepper to your taste.
Set the larger dish in the center of the oven to act as bain-marie, then fill it with boiling water to a depth of about 2 inches. Transfer the cauliflower puree from the food processor work bowl to the shallow baking dish and stand it in the hot water in the oven. The water, of course, must not rise so high up the side of the baking dish that there is any danger of if bubbling over into the cauliflower gateau. Bake it until the usual bright-knife test shows that the gateau is set all the way through to the center -- usually in about 20 to 25 minutes.
When it comes out of the oven, sprinkle the top of the gateau lightly with freshly ground nutmeg. Serve it at once on very hot plates, adding salt and pepper to each portion on the plate as needed.