As any self-respecting eight year old will tell you, brassicas are the absolute worst. Okay, so they’re unlikely to use the Latin genus classification, unless they’ve really invested some time and research into their loathing. But were they boldly to claim such things, they would be referring to the group of plants, in the mustard family, that includes such childhood atrocities as broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts.
Traditionally, such vegetables came in one of two formats: covered in cheese sauce or horrendously over-boiled, because parents seem to think children are Labradors and will eat anything regardless of taste or texture. My father maintains that teaching me the word ‘texture’ so young was one of the biggest mistakes of his life and ruined family meal times for a good decade. I, of course, was a child of particular tastes and a highly refined palate (I had a truly nuanced appreciation of ketchup and cheese). However, even with this childish affection, little could convince me to eat cauliflower or any of its equally bitter cousins. This was not helped by my mother’s 2003 health kick, which saw my morning ReadyBrek replaced with raw broccoli.
All in all, I clearly suffered a hugely traumatic brassica-based childhood, and despite coming around to broccoli a few years later (when I discovered that its consistent over-cooking meant I could actually just swallow it whole) I was certain that I would take my hatred of cauliflower and sprouts to the grave.
Obviously, I was wrong. I have a sneaking suspicion that a good number of people will also have had this change of heart in the last few years. One reason is the rise in popularity of a variety of Middle Eastern cuisines: London has seen Levantine cooking go mainstream and restaurants like Ottolenghi, Palomar and Honey & Co. have pushed through the work that places like Maroush started. This, paired with the turn to ‘whole food’ and ‘clean eating’ trends, made vegetables fashionable again. And who led the pack? Kale, everyone’s favourite brassica. Disclaimer: Definitely not my favourite, it’s disgusting and only made tolerable by baking it with brown sugar and salt to transform it into the ‘seaweed’ you get at Chinese restaurants.
Whether it’s kohlrabi coleslaw, whole roasted cauliflower with tahini and rose, or coriander and cumin Brussels sprouts, you’re sure to find something to help you make the transition into eating like an adult. My recommendation is a decidedly un-middle eastern Brussels sprout recipe that is pretty much impossible to stop eating. Momofuku’s burnt Brussels sprouts are the answer to all your side-dish worries, and probably the meaning of life…
The key is the fish sauce vinaigrette, that is in equal parts, sweet, salty, sharp and spicy. Honestly, it is so moreish that I do on occasion just drink spoonfuls of it on its own (all the time and spoonfuls is putting it delicately). Aside from my consequently excessive salt intake, there is no flaw in this recipe and I advise you try it ASAP.
However, it is the infamous cauliflower that proved the hardest to warm to. It’s overly earthy smell and chalkiness lingers after most cooking methods. But as with the sprouts, the ah-ha moment comes when you burn it. Suddenly, bitter becomes sweet and the vegetable takes on a whole new form, past caramelisation. This is, of course, the exact opposite of what happens to nearly everything else when you burn it, I don’t understand the science and to be honest, I haven’t really tried to. There are far more important things at hand, like Keralan coconut and roast cauliflower curry.
This curry makes a brilliant lazy weeknight dinner (hah, who do I think I am, some kind of grown-up?) and can easily be made vegan for everyone out there who is a better person than I am. Or you can just slice the whole bugger up and roast it with garlic cloves (in skin), olive oil and oregano for an hour. Both are delicious.
If you live in London I seriously suggest visiting one of the restaurants previously mentioned, or alternatively, go and buy a cauliflower or a bag of sprouts. Each is about a pound, and how wrong can it really go, you’re meant to be burning them anyway!