Looking for Something?

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Cold comfort: From Sicily, via Sri Lanka

The cold snap shows no sign of abating. Not until the weekend at any rate (over which we are promised grey skies and rain — brrr!).

As compelling a reason as can be to seek comfort amidst a cocoon of quilts. With cups of hot chocolate, mugs of tea with tulsi (Indian holy basil) and honey, tumblers of rum or brandy toddies lining up along the dresser as the shadows lengthen. All of which might slake the thirst (these room heaters are notoriously dehydrating), but leave me with a craving for a starch-induced stupor come six in the evening.

Having grabbed a hurried bowl of soup and a sandwich or salad at lunch, by this time I am ravenous. No discourtesy intended to either soup or salad, both of which are amongst my favourite meals. Just that I now need a carbohydrate fix — a bone marrow-deep sensation not unlike the chocolate craving of 3-pip-emma. Or the caffeine cold turkeyhood of 6-ack-emma.

By the time this compulsive urge has brought me to my knees, it's too late to patiently roll out parathas or proof a loaf of dough (or even knead soda bread). Fast and furious it has to be. For the Boy, the fix could have been fried potatoes or (alas for my Mauviel that it must bear this dishonour!) a pan of Maggi 2-minute noodles. For me, it's usually a non-instant pasta, wholewheat (because I like the bite — and it helps assuage the guilt from not filling up on phytonutrients first).

Last week, when some work-weary friends joined me at this critical hour, I found a fair flower to bedeck the pasta pot with. And a darker, more exotic blossom too.

Like all Brassicas — cabbage, kale, collard, Brussels sprout, kohlrabi and indeed broccoli — the cauliflower is a vegetable-drawer do-gooder. Very few calories in a whole head — perhaps as few as 200 in a large one. Fortifying folate and flu-fighting vitamin C, chockful of. Most important: it's mealy 'mouth feel' — intended in the best way! — makes it a potato substitute* with hardly any of that starch.

So filling, yummy, but not sleepy-making. Perfect!

In this Sicilian-inspired recipe, cauliflower — a winter market staple here in India — is reminiscent of sunny climes in the most soothing way.

Only I was too impatient to bother with several pots like some recipes suggest (Three?! That's more than the number of burners on my gas stove!). Or to fuss with roasting tomatoes, of which I only had green ones. And crucially, I hadn't any anchovies — nay, not a single stray fin! (Caviar, yes, of a sort; tinned sardines and a can of tuna, too — but no anchovies, or even a kipper.)

Then, Lady Kitchen-Luck smiled. As I rummaged for a suitably salty, savoury substitute, I happened upon a jar of kehel muha badum, a spicy 'side' from Sri Lanka featuring shredded banana flowers and dried sprats in a smidgen of oil. A jar two years old and just a few months short of giving up the ghost of its 'Best before'. Hooray, for a larder-detoxing rescue!

So I skimmed though all those traditional, authentic and inspired recipes — and got cooking with none to hand. Just the merest outline retained in my head from reading. Yes, I wanted to be reckless today (a rare day, friends and family of this inveterate measurer and cookbook slave will tell you). And I wanted the unknown quantity, the X factor (my Sri Lankan relish) to guide my hand. (That and, erm, the fact that I had no pinenuts or raisins either.)**

Sicilian-meets-Sri Lankan Cauliflower Pasta
4 deep bowlfuls of comfort food

2tbsp olive oil
2 red onions, chopped
1 medium-large head of cauliflower, about 750g, broken into florets
A generous 2 heaped tbsp of kehel muwa relish (just opt for anchovies in oil or anchovy paste if Lady Luck hasn't been so generous)
A pinch of dried red chilli flakes, or to taste (I wanted the heat, as you can tell)
250g wholewheat pasta (I used macaroni)
2 tbsp melon seeds, lightly toasted

  1. If you've been clever enough to use the heavy-bottomed pasta pot to toast your seeds in, take them out and add the olive oil directly. Fry the onions till translucent, about 5-7 minutes.

  2. Stir in the cauliflower, banana flower and sprats (or anchovies) and chilli flakes. Saute, stirring, till the cauliflower florets just start to colour — about another 3-5 minutes on medium-high heat.

  3. Add the pasta and enough water to cover.*** Put the lid on and cook till florets are tender and pasta al dente. This should take about 7-10 minutes, depending on the size of your florets and the shape of pasta you choose. (If in doubt, steam the cauliflower over the pasta in a separate stock pot — and cook the sauce separately; but I doubt this will be as flavourful. I would be guided my the texture of the pasta — the cauliflower can soften a tad more without disaster. But if you're using plain rather than wholewheat pasta, add it when the cauliflower's parboiled.)

  4. If the sauce is still watery, remove the lid and increase the heat to boil off the excess (upto a cupful can be left at the bottom — it gets absorbed quickly and adds a nice sheen of sauciness).

  5. Serve warm, preferably with a tall glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice for extra sunniness!

Hmm-mmm! Having spooned it up double-quick, in reverent silence — as befits such a flowery offering — I now do solemnly swear to repeat this recipe. (There's just enough kehel muwa for ONE more panful.)

Perhaps with some currants or sultanas (in lieu of the raisins) next time. Or caramelizing the onions a tad for sweetness to offset the salt. And add that saffron muddled in a bit of cream, just in case and for a warmer colour. Maybe grate a little Pecorino over it all. A few sprigs of fresh mint, chopped; a few snips of sundried tomatoto toss in...

Or maybe I'll make it just exactly the same!

* Apparently this makes for fauxtato! In traditional Indian winter cooking, we don't bother with the sales pitch — we simply push it in where potatoes would otherwise go. In a samosa for instance, the best rendition of this being the Bengali sweetshop staple of phoolkopir shingara, available only in the cooler months.

** For instance, I decided the delicacy of saffron would be overpowered by the spices in the condiment. And that watermelon and melon seeds were a nutty enough swap for pine nuts — especially as they were pale enough to play hide-and-seek in the creamy florets, coming out to play only as we bit in.

*** A splash of milk in the cooking water is supposed to keep the florets fetchingly pale. I tried this, but perhaps I had a head that was too tired for such fancifications — because creamy off-white is what it resolutely remained.


Srivalli said...

Hi...that looks good...cauliflower with pasta sounds so innovative....are you blogging from India..if so, check out
Arusuvai Friendship Chain
and let me know if you are interested!..drop me a mail at cooking4allseasons@gmail.com

Rodosee said...

Srivalli, thanks for visiting! Yes, I'm indeed blogging from India --- from New Delhi at the moment.

As for the cauliflower with pasta, I started thinking about it because of the broccoli pasta that's such a favourite in our household. If broccoli, why not cauli...? Turned out it was traditional Italian: with saffron too, as a bonus!