Multi-coloured swap shop…

Ottolenghi's saffron cauliflower with Anissa Helou's m'jaddarah

…or the tale of how one dinner became a mix n’ match fridge feast. Thursday’s curry left me with half a cauliflower weighing on my conscience. While I wouldn’t go as far as hate, the cauliflower and I enjoy a lukewarm relationship (it’s quite a lukewarm sort of vegetable, now I come to think of it; all watery and wan and disappointing, for all its rococco good looks), so, without bacon or black pudding to back me up, I was at a bit of a loss as to how to dispatch the thing. I briefly considered pickling it – a robust crunch giving at least some semblance of character – but then what are pickles without smoked fish, or cold pork?

If blandness is the problem, then Yotam Ottolenghi is always the solution. I found the recipe for Saffron Cauliflower in Plenty; inspired, apparently, by an edition of Radio Four’s The Food Programme that he presented on our friend Brassica olereacea. He classes the cauli with potatoes and aubergines as a vegetable which can take on big flavours without losing its unique character, which is lucky, because a whole jar of saffron goes into tarting up my leftovers, along with sultanas, green olives, red onion and bay leaves. Ottolenghi is never a man to do things by halves.

His serving suggestion for this smorgasbord of seasoning: lentils or fish. Given that the latter is off limits for the next 36 days, and the number of flavours battling it out in the oven is already rather unnerving, I opt for a relatively plain lentil recipe, from Anissa Helou’s Lebanese Cuisine. M’jaddarah, fittingly, is a Lenten staple amongst the country’s Christian community, cooked slowly and then left to cool ‘while the women do the weekly spring cleaning of the house’. (I prefer to sit down with a Manhattan while the green lentils, rice and onions simmer away, but horses for courses and all that.)

Given the dish was billed as ‘lentils and rice’, I’m quite surprised at the ratio – 25g of short grain rice gets lost in 200g lentils; if I made this again, I might up the rice content slightly, or leave it out altogether. Google images confirms my suspicion that I have far too much water left in the pan (my lentils have cooked a lot more quickly than the spring cleaning ladies, possibly because God has spotted me relaxing with the paper rather than dusting the skirting boards), so I have to ladle some out, hoping I haven’t lost too much of the cumin and allspice along the way, and then boil it furiously for quarter of an hour until it finally thickens from a broth into a stew.

The two go well enough together, although the saffron flavours of the cauliflower would probably be better off served alone, or with a green salad or plain baked fish – it’s a funny old spice, saffron, hard to describe, but difficult to ignore, and I find myself picking pieces worth about 25 pence a pop out of my teeth all evening.

The cauliflower spruces up some week-old pearl barley for lunch the next day, with some steamed spinach and coriander leaves stirred through for variety’s sake:

and the lentils make a pleasingly frugal supper (to get all Nigel Slater about it) with the rest of the spinach, and some St Tola goat’s cheese. I sense I’ll be seeing both dishes again in my lunchbox this week, so it’s fortunate I enjoyed them the first time round.

I’ve never met a lentil I didn’t like, but in the ordinary way of things, there’s no chance I would have spent time or ingredients on cauliflower baked with sultanas (ugh ugh ugh) – and although I still believe that vegetable reaches its highest state of being in the company of bacon, I don’t regret giving it a try. Which is not to say I’d make it again.

One response to “Multi-coloured swap shop…”

  1. Have given up doing anything with cauliflower other than roasting it. After which it is seriously like the crack of the vegetable world. Good just plain, or with cumin/garlic. Or toss the plain roasted with penne, rosemary, garlic, saffron, pine nuts, parmesan, chopped prunes, chilli flakes – sounds like a car-crash, but is seriously good.

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