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Cauliflower pakoras, lightened up

Cauliflower pakoras

Back at the beginning of Chanukah in mid-December, I was too busy to do much celebrating or posting. We were traveling more than usual and my daughter’s college application essays were still in rough shape and we were both a little panicked. My poor husband was working 13-hour days and trying to calm down the younger post-docs that this wasn’t ALWAYS how R&D goes–just sometimes. It’s the price you pay for doing rocket science.

And it was pretty hot and dry around Los Angeles–hence all those fires in the news. Makes it hard to feel safe breathing. Still, we did manage to celebrate modestly, even though the first night of Chanukah was during the nailbiter Alabama special election, whose results wouldn’t be in until after supper.

In any case, I’m posting this now because these are relatively quick and easy (and inexpensive) appetizers. They’re not super-svelte but not overloaded either, and they taste good, even after Chanukah is over (but please, make a fresh batch…)

I don’t do deep frying for Chanukah, particularly not with olive oil, which is expensive and wastes the oil and the calories (gotta save a few for the gelt–chocolate coins). And the cleanup. As my forebears did, I want to make a little olive oil last a longer time by using it sparingly with foods that deliver a slightly better svelte potential than potato latkes. Well–most of my forebears were more worried about getting enough food during the winter, not about eating too much, but let’s say my parents, who grew up in America with enough potatoes and enough oil to give you a gallbladder (and if that’s not a Jewish expression, I don’t know what is). In any case, frugality is warranted but so is enjoyment. How to balance the two?

I’m in love with gilded cauliflower–I think I’ve mentioned it a few (hundred) times. It’s quicker to prepare and probably even somewhat cheaper in salad bowl volumes than pasta or potato salad most of the year. Certainly more nutritious and sophisticated. And it contains garlic. I recently reinforced that view with my entire congregation when I brought a Sicilian (Roman? don’t exactly know) roasted cauliflower, pepper and artichoke salad to a brunch buffet after services. I was pleasantly surprised that by the end of the meal most of it was eaten and actually complimented on. I know, that’s not a true indicator in a lot of places, but Jews aren’t generally shy about telling each other what they really think, especially my congregation, and especially about food.

But I wasn’t totally in the mood for more of the same, even though I had about a third of a big head of cauliflower and some marinated artichokes left over from a frittata. Somewhere in the depths of my grains-and-beans drawer in the fridge (most people use it as a meat drawer; I use it to foil moths) I had stashed a bag of chickpea flour (Bob’s Red Mill; about $2-3 for a 16-ounce bag) because I thought I might make felafel (microwaved and pan-browned, still not deep-fried). But that seemed like a bit of work and kind of heavy.

When I went to pick up my daughter from school, I still hadn’t quite figured out how or what I was going to do quickly but semi-festively on a weeknight with homework and college applications looming. I knew I wasn’t even going to bother wrapping the presents I had for her and my husband, and I had to scrounge for enough candles to light the first night’s lights (note to self, get an extra box, one for next year).

As we passed a new Indian restaurant on the way home, though, it finally clicked.

“How about if I tried making some cauliflower pakoras?” I asked.

“That would be freaking delicious!”

OK, then.

I made them, halfway checking Malhu Manji’s cookbook and halfway winging it on the batter. We already had some cooked basmati rice so, feeling a theme here, I made some microwave palak paneer to go with it and had just enough time to nuke up a chunk of tamarind pulp in a bowl of water for a few minutes, blitz it in the food processor, scrape it through a colander to separate out the seeds and stringy bits (I know, this neither looks nor sounds all that pretty), stir in a spoonful of brown sugar for a quick tamarind sauce and nuke it another minute or so to get it the more attractive apple-butter-like dark reddish brown.

That’s obviously more fuss than you’d want on a weeknight, and I’m not recommending it as such, but by then I was in the groove and feeling righteous and like I could do no wrong because the pakoras were smelling good. There has to be some time when it’s fun to be in the kitchen, right? If you don’t want the supertartness of tamarind sauce OR the fuss, these pakoras would actually be pretty decent with apple butter or chutney from the store, come to think of it.

I was cranking along so well (and my husband and daughter were dawdling before dinner so much doing Mysterious and Important Things™) that I had time to grate an overripe tomato for a second chutney before my family caught on. We lit candles and tucked in.

And the pakoras were, in fact, freaking delicious. Fast, fresh, spicy rather than too-salty, crisp and browned and not greasy. You don’t need a lot of oil or deep-frying if you precook the cauliflower in the microwave and use a nonstick pan. They’ll brown nicely with a tablespoon or two of oil for a plateful, and they’re a lot quicker than latkes. So they might not be restaurant-standard because the batter doesn’t puff up the way deep-fried does, they might not be technically all that healthy except in comparison with latkes or jelly doughnuts–but they won’t give you a gallbladder either.

head of cauliflower

Cauliflower Pakoras, a little less oily

Cauliflower–1/2 to 1 large-ish head, about 2-3 cups for half a head of bite-size pieces

Olive oil for frying (preferably spoonfuls, not cupfuls, and use a nonstick pan)

Batter

  • 1 c. chickpea flour (besan in Indian markets)
  • 1/4 onion, grated or chopped fine (or whizzed in a food processor)
  • 1/2 t each cumin and coriander seed, plus 1/4 t each turmeric and fenugreek OR 1 t. commercial curry powder
  • 1 lg. clove garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • pinch each of baking soda and salt
  • tiny grating or pinch of nutmeg, optional but good
  • optional fresh-ground black pepper or chile flakes if you want it hot
  • optional dollop of plain yogurt, a heaping soupspoon or 2 T
  • 1-1.5 c. water as needed

Whisk together everything but the water and then whisk in the water gradually but thoroughly until it makes a medium-thick pourable batter, as if you were making pancake batter. Let it sit covered 15-30 minutes or so to thicken up (it will). Stir it again and thin it back out with a little more water if you need to, just to the consistency of pancake batter.

pakora batter

While it’s still resting, slice a couple of cups of cauliflower into bite-sized pieces, maybe a quarter to half an inch thick and an inch across. A third to half a large head would be about right to make a plateful of bite-size pieces, but you can use the whole head if you want more–there was enough leftover batter when I did half a head that it probably could have covered the rest. Microwave the slices on an open Corelle-type plate or in a large microwave-safe container with a lid for 2-3 minutes on HIGH to parcook them.

cauliflower in bite-size pieces

When you’re ready to fry, heat a tablespoon or two of olive or polyunsaturated vegetable oil in a nonstick frying pan, just enough to coat the bottom. Pour some of the batter over the cauliflower chunks (use a big mixing bowl if you’re doing  the whole head, it’s a little less messy) and mix with your hands to coat them thoroughly–add a little more batter as needed to coat it to your liking. If you use a whole head of cauliflower, you’ll probably need all the batter.

When the oil’s hot and shimmering, fry the plateful of florets in a single layer, with space between pieces if you can (do two batches for a full head, or use two pans side by side). Let the florets sit a while until they start looking cooked on the underside. Flip with a spatula and let them sit again, perhaps with a lid on for a few minutes to help steam all the batter that got inside the florets, then open it up to crisp and brown the outsides to your liking. If you feel you need a little more oil, drizzle a spoonful or capful in drops around the outside edge of the pan and shake the florets in the pan to distribute it.

—  —  —

I realize winter’s not the best time to recommend a fresh tomato sauce, so if you don’t have fresh tomatoes, go with a can of unsalted tomatoes and pulse them in the food processor to break them up.

I learned this quick low-tech trick of grating fresh tomatoes for a sauce from Janna Gur’s latest Israeli cookbook in English, I think? maybe one of the videos on her web site, Al ha-Shulchan (On the Table). You can use the pulp raw or cooked–here I cook it lightly in a pan so it’s not super-thick and it retains its fresh character. You can flavor it a couple of different ways and make just what you need for the moment–for the pakoras, I used one large beefsteak tomato that was nearly overripe (we’re lucky, we have good tomatoes longer into the fall than most of the country). Roma tomatoes are fleshier and have fewer seeds (which I don’t squeeze out; they carry a lot of flavor). But they’re smaller and firmer and might be trickier to grate safely. You might just take out the cores and purée those in a food processor, skin and all, with a little water or else just chop them and let them cook down a bit longer in the pan.

Fresh-grated tomato sauce or relish

  • large ripe tomatoes
  • clove of garlic, minced/mashed/grated
  • olive oil

Indian-style: pinches of cumin, cinnamon, and nigella (kalonji, black onion seed), a bit of chopped fresh cilantro, sprinkle of hot pepper flakes

Italian-style: a sprig or pinch of thyme and/or oregano, maybe hot pepper flakes, a sprinkle of vinegar

Wash and cut the tomato(es) in half horizontally. Grate the cut side of each half on the large holes of a box or flat grater over a bowl. Hold your hand flat on the top of the tomato half to avoid getting your knuckles, and grate all the way to the peel (go slower toward the end for safety). Discard the empty peel. Heat a spoonful of olive oil in a nonstick pan, grate the garlic into it, and as soon as the aroma comes up and the garlic is just beginning to go golden, pour on the tomato pulp and let it simmer a bit. Sprinkle on the flavorings of choice and let it cook just until it reddens and starts thickening at the edges of the pan like tomato paste–about 5 minutes, maybe a bit more. The juice will separate out when you start heating the pulp, so stir the thickened stuff back in  as it cooks down.

B’te’avon (eat nice, mangia bene, bon appétit) and Happy New Year!

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