Cauliflower roasted whole and served over a pool of lemon tahini sauce and a sharp knife is a fine thing. So is cauliflower cut into florets that are battered, fried and covered in Buffalo sauce. They are both solid dishes that can make you forget you ever hated cauliflower, or if you’re like me, that you ever steamed it to the point of tasting like absolutely nothing when you were just a little baby home cook.
These days, when cauliflower pops up in the box of organic vegetables that has been coming to my house every week since the pandemic started, I mostly default to one of those recipes. There are no complaints! But if I was in a rut, well then, I am no longer, courtesy of the cauliflower a la niçoise recipe (page 172!) from Vegan: The Cookbook, which is part of April and May’s East Fork Cook-Along.
To be honest, it’s a recipe I probably wouldn’t have gravitated to in my first few brushes with this book, which is vast and contains recipes from all over the world, which sounds intimidating, doesn’t it? It’s not. The recipes are straightforward and don’t trick you into turning to several other pages to find the “sub-recipes” that are components of what you’re making, which can be fun on a weekend afternoon but not very welcome when you’re tired, hungry and it’s Tuesday night.
I wonder how certain words in a recipe’s title will sell it (or not) to the person flipping through the book. I bring it up because seeing “Niçoise” stirs nothing in me. In the years when I ate meat, I’d never eaten chicken niçoise or salade niçoise, and I don’t recall anyone I’ve ever dined with ordering those dishes, either. So, they are mystery dishes to me, other than this idea I have, perhaps completely unfounded, that fashion editors really love salade niçoise.
I feel lucky that I had no expectations when I made this dish: it’s a true winner that took me by surprise. And like my cauliflower steaks and cauliflower masquerading as chicken wings, it’s the sort of thing that will be a hit with meat eaters, too. It’s substantial—I wasn’t convinced that “just cauliflower” would be lunch enough for two hungry people but it absolutely was, and the complex flavors kept it interesting. Is it really niçoise? I’m not the person to ask. But if the point is to center the dish on its briny olives, everything here seems to line up the flavors to do exactly that.
I followed the recipe closely but I couldn’t find fresh marjoram, so I used one tablespoon dried. The recipe calls for garlic-stuffed olives, so as I did my prepwork, I peeled some garlic cloves and put them in the airfryer (I hate heating up the whole oven for something small) for 15 minutes, sliced them length-wide and slid them into the olives. Real talk: if this wasn’t a recipe for a work assignment, I would have been lazy and skipped the garlic. But the way it softened the flavor of the olives and tomatoes was worth the minuscule amount of effort it took.
And, to go back to my weekly boxes of vegetables for a moment, because that stuff just keeps on coming, if I find a recipe I’m eager to cook, sometimes instead of following it to the letter, I like to improvise and substitute, especially if it helps clear out some of the “use or lose” stuff in my fridge. But here, I think that the effort in getting the red bell pepper the recipe calls for, instead of just using two green ones (which I always seem to have) made a real difference in the sweetness it gave the dish.
Finally, this might be a preference based solely on the cookware I’ve got on hand, but I used a Dutch oven instead of a saucepan, which the recipe recommends. My Dutch oven is wider than all of my saucepans. It’s easier to stir without the cauliflower florets jumping onto the stove. It’s the little things.