It is early November in Seattle and that means several things. The loss of daylight savings and therefore the return of the darkness settling in around 4:30pm (and it only gets worse), it means the wind picking up and the rain becoming more steady. It means piles of wet leaves everywhere that no child would ever want to jump into. It means starting to prepare myself for a large bird that will take up residence in my oven for the better part of a day. It means birthday month for my son, my mother, my niece, my best friend, my best friend’s son, two of my kids’ closest friends, and others in my life. And it means Karen is in town.
Karen and I were both theatre majors in college. Being two years ahead of me, I didn’t get to take that many classes with her and we were never in a production together, but we were very close friends. Her father was a professor at the college and I got to be very close with her family as well as they invited me over for Passover Seders, and allowed me to store my boxes of stuff at their house each summer. (As a thank you, I would bring them an incredible luxury each fall. Starbucks coffee! It was a delicacy then. Now, of course, there is a Starbucks in the small Connecticut town.)
Some people say that a theatre major is totally useless. I would disagree. Learning how to speak in front of people and the art of self-awareness; learning how to work together with other actors, how to take direction, and how to make friends with another species (the technical crew); learning how to juggle a school schedule while rehearsing until after midnight every night – all those things have actually really helped me in my life. But I never “did” anything with my major.
Karen is another story. As she got nearer to graduation, she realized that her real interest lay in casting. She left college and took a $75/week internship with a casting director in New York. She worked hard and got offered a real job. Then she made a move to Los Angeles. Then she got a very cool job at CBS. Then she got an even cooler job at CBS which is being the casting director for comedies. She has had that job for the past ten years or so.
There is a comedy festival in Seattle every year around this time and she has made it up almost every year. It is such a treat to have her in town and such an interesting marker of our years as friends. I remember sitting in her hotel room and telling her how my first marriage was falling apart. We spent election night of 2000 running up to the bar from the comedy club checking on the results and crossing our fingers that it all would turn out all right (which for both of us, it didn’t). There were years that I was pregnant and years that she was. There were years I was nursing and years she was pumping. She first met both of my boys on these November trips. I have been so grateful that I get to see her at least once a year.
This time, she came in a little earlier than usual and we got last night together. A night out in a restaurant sounded tempting but what I really wanted was to cook for her and to allow her to relax in our home with our boys. As I mentioned in my last post, I have been in a bit of rut lately but when I was paging through my latest issue of Food & Wine, this recipe jumped out at me. When something sticks in my addled brain, as this dish did, I know I need to make it.
What you see here is a mixture of fregola (which is very similar to Israeli couscous) and grated cauliflower all mixed together with a bit of broth, a healthy dose of red pepper flakes, and fresh mint. It is sitting on a bed of surprisingly fantastic cauliflower purée and topped with oven roasted tomatoes. I usually find the recipes in Food & Wine to be spot on but there was something missing here. It was still a delightful dish and I would gladly fill a bowl with that purée and go to town with a spoon. But the fregola needed something else. A sprinkling of cumin during the simmer perhaps or an addition of caramelized onions that have been very finely chopped. Or olives. Or all three. Just a bit more flavor to make it really main course material.
In addition to needing more flavor, I thought this dish needed more purée. The original recipe instructs you to only use half a cauliflower and to grate one of those halves and purée the other. I think you should purée the ¾ of the cauliflower that you aren’t grating and if you have any left over, you can use it as a side with another dish.
1 head cauliflower
¼ cup plus 2 tbsp. heavy cream
½ cup plus 2 tbsp. water
3 tbsp. unsalted butter
½ pint grape tomatoes
1½ cups fregola
¾ cup vegetable broth
1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
¼ cup mint leaves, torn
Preheat oven to 350ºF. Cut the cauliflower in half and cut one of the halves in half again. Grate one of the quarters on the large holes of a box grater, stopping when you reach the stems; you should have about 1 cup of grated cauliflower that resembles coarsely grated Parmesan. Finely chop the stems and add to the grated. Set aside.
Roughly chop the rest of the cauliflower. Put in in a saucepan along with the cream, water and 2 tablespoons of the butter. Season with salt. Cover and cook over moderate heat until the cauliflower is tender and the liquid nearly evaporated, 8 minutes. If the liquid is gone before the cauliflower is tender, add a bit more water. Scrape the mixture into a food processor and purée until very smooth. Wipe out the saucepan and return the purée to it; keep warm.
In a small baking dish or on a small baking sheet, drizzle the tomatoes lightly with olive oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and mix well. Roast for about 10 minutes, just until the skins start to burst.
Meanwhile, bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Add the fregola and cook until al dente. Drain the fregola and return it to the pot. Add the vegetable broth, crushed red pepper, and the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter and cook over low heat, stirring until the sauce is creamy, adding more liquid if necessary. Stir in the grated cauliflower and cook until just tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mint.
Spoon the cauliflower purée onto plates. Top with the fregola and roasted tomatoes and serve immediately.