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Crazy for Cauliflower

Inspired veggie sensation

My sister and I recently had dinner at The Bower, a new-ish chic, contemporary restaurant on Magazine Street in the Lower Garden District. We shared a collection of memorable dishes from the well-crafted menu, and we were doing OK until the crispy cauliflower appeared. One bite from each of us and the knives came out, both of us wanting it to ourselves. This magical dish of humble vegetables is one of those unforgettable creations that becomes so much more than the sum of its parts (cauliflower, napa cabbage, sweet garlic chili crunch oil, sesame seeds, cilantro, green onions). I could eat this every day and I just might since chef Marcus Woodham generously shared the recipe.

It would be a lie to say this is one of those one pot dishes you can just wickie together in a flash. A substantial amount of prep is required, the sweet garlic chili crunch oil is easy to mess up, and the cauliflower and Napa cabbage are cooked separately before they are combined with fresh herbs, scallions, and the chili oil. It is worth the effort and makes amazing use of the seasonal cauliflower and cabbage that are so abundant right now. 

  1. Things can go terribly wrong when frying the shallots and the garlic, especially the garlic. If you burn the garlic and it is the last thing you are cooking in the oil you need only to cook more garlic in clean oil and hope for the best. If you burned the garlic and did not realize it (this happened to me), then cook the shallots and/or ginger after, it, too, will be ruined and you are starting all over again.
  2. After my initial, humiliating failure, for which I fled to Chef Marcus for an in-person tutorial (and watched him cringe when he sampled my failed and blacked oil) I decided to bypass the frying of the shallots and garlic altogether and I purchased jars of fried garlic and fried shallots from the Hong Kong Market (hongkongmarketnola.com). I fried the ginger in 3 cups of oil as directed and drained it. I combined the spices then poured the 250ºF oil over them. When the oil was fully cool, I added the fried ginger (I could not find it pre-fried or I would have skipped that step, too) as well as one cup each fried shallots and fried garlic.
  3. Crunchy chili crisp is definitely having a moment and you’ll not regret making extra for use on anything that needs a bit of  zippity do-dah: Toss it with cheesy pasta or any noodle dish. Use as a stir-fry finishing oil. Slather it on a sandwich. Drizzle it over buttered rice or fried rice. Spoon it over grilled steak, shrimp, or roast chicken. Drizzle it over eggs or ice cream. Toss it into fruit salad and add a splash of lime. You get the picture.

Crispy Cauliflower

Serves 4 as an entrée, 6 as a side dish

2 heads cauliflower (about 2 pounds florets)

1 head Napa cabbage

Kosher salt and black pepper

1/2 cup sesame oil

3 cups canola oil plus additional for frying the cauliflower

1 cup julienned ginger (see notes)

1 cup julienned shallots (see notes)

1 cup julienned garlic (see notes)

3/4 cup Turbinado (raw cane) sugar

2 tablespoons coarsely cracked black pepper

1 teaspoon crushed red pepper

1 cup Aleppo pepper

2 tablespoons Maldon sea salt

1 bunch cilantro, stems discarded, leaves roughly chopped

2 bunches green onions, very thinly sliced (green parts only)

3 tablespoons toasted sesame seeds

1. Remove the leaves and cores from the cauliflower and discard. Break the heads down into bite-sized florets. Set aside.

2. Quarter the Napa cabbage. Remove the core and discard. Season with salt, pepper and sesame oil and toss to thoroughly coat. Char the cabbage on a grill or roast in a 400ºF oven on a baking sheet until slightly tender, about 15 minutes. Cool and cut into one-inch pieces. Set aside. 

3. Heat the canola oil to 325ºF in a sauce pot. Use a culinary thermometer to track the temperature. Take care to use a saucepot large enough to hold the oil and the ingredients while minimizing splatter, as, once the ingredients go into the oil, the oil will expand and splatter.

4. Fry the ginger till crisp then remove with slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Repeat the process with the shallots, then the garlic. Work in that order. Set aside.

5. In a separate bowl combine the sugar, black pepper, crushed red pepper, Aleppo pepper, and Maldon sea salt. While the canola oil is still hot, about 250ºF, pour the oil over the dry seasoning mixture. This will infuse the oil. Once cool, add the ginger, garlic, and shallots. NOTE: The infused, crunchy oil can be made up to three weeks in advance and stored, tightly covered, until ready for use. Refrigerate if desired but it is not necessary.

6. Fry the cauliflower in 365ºF until crispy. Drain on paper towels. Alternatively, the cauliflower may be lightly spritzed with oil then cooked in a single layer (in batches if necessary) in an air fryer. The result will be a little less crispy but more virtuous.

7. To complete the dish, in a large bowl combine the cauliflower with the cabbage, cilantro, and green onions. Add 4 to 7 tablespoons of the crunchy chili oil (to taste) and toss to coat thoroughly. Divide among four shallow bowls. Garnish with sesame seeds.

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