A quick note with a recipe for what is probably the most versatile of winter vegetables: cauliflower. It lends itself to practically every cooking technique you can think of: steaming, braising, boiling, frying, baking, roasting… And its mild flavor lends itself to pairing with all sorts of other foods and sauces. Here is one of my very favorite ways to make cauliflower—simply steamed and napped with a zesty anchovy sauce. You can make it in a matter of minutes, so it’s perfect for a weeknight meal. And while this dish is traditionally classified as a contorno (side dish), it’s so satisfying and its flavors are so assertive, I’d suggest it as antipasto or even a light secondo.
Serves 4 as a side dish or antipasto, 2 as a vegetarian main dish
- 1 head of cauliflower, trimmed and cut into flowerets
For the anchovy sauce:
- 250 ml (1 cup) olive oil
- 2-3 cloves of garlic, peeled and slightly crushed
- 1 peperoncino (dried red pepper) (or a pinch of red pepper flakes)
- 1 small can of anchovy fillets (50g/2 oz)
- A handful of capers, rinsed and squeezed dry
- White wine (or water)
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely chopped
Put the cauliflower flowerets in a steamer, season with salt, and steam until just tender, about 10-15 minutes depending on the size and age of the vegetable.
Meanwhile, in a small pot, sauté the garlic and peperoncino very gently in the olive oil. The heat should be as low as you can manage, so that the garlic and peperoncino steep more than they cook in the oil. When the garlic is slightly brown, add the anchovies and capers and continue to cook very gently, until the anchovies have fallen apart. Add a splash of white wine or water; you will see the anchovies instantly dissolve. Turn off the heat and add most of the chopped parsley. Remove the garlic and peperoncino and keep warm, covered, until you’re ready to use.
When the cauliflower is done, arrange the flowerets on a warmed serving dish. Nap each floweret with a bit of the anchovy sauce, and pouring any extra sauce around the base. Sprinkle the top with some extra parsley for color, and serve immediately.
This is obviously a very simple dish, but there are two keys to success: First, you need to cook the cauliflower properly. Steaming is much better for boiling, as the vegetable remains relatively dry inside. If you boil the cauliflower, it will tend to retain water which, when served, will run out and dilute the sauce into a runny mess. You should also cook the cauliflower until it is entirely tender—not crisp tender but full tender—so it is soft enough to ‘receive’ the sauce. On the other hand, if it’s mushy it become rather unpleasant to look at—and smell. So the key is fully cooked, but not overcooked. Test the vegetable often with a paring knife; once it penetrates the vegetable without resistance, it’s done.
The other key is to cook the sauce very gently. As mentioned, the ingredients should steep in the oil more than they actually cook. In this way, you can coax the maximum flavor out of them. Avoid browning the garlic or red pepper too much, as they can become bitter; the anchovy, too, can acquire an unpleasant taste when overcooked. If you really like anchovies, you can increase the amount, up to double the amount given here. And while I’ve called for small cans—for convenience—the dish will be at its best if you use anchovies packed in salt, which you’ll need to fillet and rinse before using.