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The smaller, the sweeter

Once upon a time – not so long ago, but it sure feels like it – I lived in a little studio apartment in Paris.* It had a front door that closed only when slammed, a tiny terrace guarded by a garden gnome named Vincent, and an almost-kitchen in an alcove, with a two-burner electric stove, a dorm room refrigerator, no oven, and a microwave that I stood on my tiptoes to reach. It was humble, but it was sweet. And above all, it was in France. People, it could have been Stuart Little’s matchbox, for all I cared. To me, that apartment was a petite – Parisienne-size, let’s say – piece of paradise. I used the top of my dresser as a de facto countertop and cheerfully cooked my ovenless meals. The foot of my bed made a handy dinner table, where I sat to eat my daily baguette dunked in soup and bowls of ratatouille with runny poached eggs. One entire shelf of my wee fridge was taken up by cheese, wrapped in waxed paper and stinky with promise. I ate it to the televised soundtrack of Les Guignols and PPDA, licking my knife** to get every last nub and smear. Never mind that I had to break myself in half to shave my legs in the pocket-size shower stall. That place was paradise.

Now, this little studio of mine was situated in the eleventh arrondissement, not too far from a particularly good market street called rue Oberkampf. Gently curving up an ever-so-slight slope, the narrow street was lined with shops and stands: a butcher under a red awning, with chickens spinning on a rotisserie outside; a cheese shop here; a cheese shop there; a wine shop; a boulangerie; and a pâtisserie too, its windows lined in puff pastry and marzipan. But my favorite shop on Oberkampf was a greengrocer on a corner, under a kelly awning. Behind boxes of wares stood the shop’s keeper, a man in something akin to a doctor’s coat, meting out the pick of the day. He was chatty but serious, almost professorial. He made small talk about carrots with his customers. On that first visit, when my turn came, he promptly offered me half an apricot, plump and rosy around the shoulders. Needless to say, I was an easy sell. I’m a sucker for a man who knows his stone fruit, and who genuinely cares about carrots. So I snatched up a dozen apricots and, over the months that followed, came back for eggplant and tomatoes and lettuce, along with mushrooms and soft green pears. And sometime in the winter, perhaps as a reward for my devotion, he pointed me to a wooden crate near the door. Within it lay the cutest, tiniest cauliflower in the whole world. It was the size of my fist, snowy white, with leaves curled shyly around its cheeks. It would be extra sweet, he promised me, and mild and tender. So I took it back to my studio and its stunted little stove – for which the cauliflower seemed to have been destined, anyway – and while I set the table-slash-bed, I steamed it until it melted under my fork. Eaten warm with a mustard vinaigrette, it was nutty and warming and delicious, a small wintry meal for someone living in small quarters.

And to make a long story short, this is exactly what I thought of last week, when I stumbled upon a cache of pint-size cauliflower at the market. They were about a pound each – small by American standards, albeit still rather giant in comparison to their Oberkampf counterpart. I brought home two of them, nubbled and pearly, and set to work in our Seattle kitchen to cook them as I would have done in Paris, had I had an oven or a pastry brush.

First, I steamed them for a few minutes, so that they just softened. Then I painted them – the whole heads, still intact – with a slurry of olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg, and slipped them into the oven. Tucked under a tent of aluminum foil, the little crucifers went completely relaxed, letting loose their limbs and florets to slump on the floor of the roasting pan. When they yielded to a serving spoon without the slightest squeak or fight, we doused them with vinaigrette and ate them, sweet and silky, on the spot. For a minute there, it was like just like Paris – or better, even, what with all that roasting and relaxing, not to mention a real dinner table.

* Should you wonder what I was doing there, here you go. The pay is puny on first glance, but for only twelve hours a week, it’s pretty wonderful. I highly recommend it.
** I know, Mom, I know. I was living dangerously. Please forgive.

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Mustard Vinaigrette
Adapted from Parisian Home Cooking, by Michael Roberts

Really, is there anything cuter than a short, squatty, lightly burnished head of cauliflower? [The answer, ahem, is no.] Now is the perfect time for this dish: the beginning of cauliflower season, when the heads are small and sweet. And the recipe itself couldn’t be easier, not to mention delicious. I like to serve this pretty, rustic dish on the warm side of hot, and with a little boat of vinaigrette on the side, so that each eater can drizzle or douse to their heart’s content. I usually use my standard red wine-mustard vinaigrette, but if you like, you can play with different vinegars in your dressing. On the night that the above photograph was taken, we used Banyuls vinegar, and its tart, nutty flavor was a welcome change.

2 small cauliflower, about 1 pound each
3 Tbs good-quality olive oil
2 Tbs fresh lemon juice
1 tsp fine sea salt
A few grinds of black pepper
A pinch of freshly grated nutmeg
This vinaigrette

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit.

Set a steamer basket inside a large, deep pot, and add water to a depth of ½ to 1 inch – just below the bottom of the steamer. Rinse and trim the cauliflower. Place them in the steamer, cover, and steam for 15-20 minutes. By this point, they should be tender and should have changed in color from a raw, opaque white to a slightly more translucent, yellowy off-white.

Meanwhile, combine the oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in a small bowl, whisking to mix well.

When the cauliflower is ready, gently transfer them from the steamer to a medium baking dish or small roasting pan, something just large enough to hold the two heads side by side. Using a pastry brush, paint the cauliflower with the oil mixture. Cover the pan with aluminum foil, and place it in the oven. Roast the cauliflower for 30 minutes, basting every ten minutes. [You should have just enough of the oil mixture for three light bastings in total, including the first one.] Remove the foil, and continue to bake for another 10-20 minutes, until the cauliflower is pale golden and a knife can be easily inserted into its core.

Serve hot or warm, with vinaigrette.

Yield: About 4 servings


Blogger lobstersquad said...

I love your Amelie life in Paris. Very sweet.

1:39 AM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous Colleen said...

As always I love your stories :) Cauliflower is one of my favorite veggies. I have to try this over the weekend! Thanks :)

5:15 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Judy said...

Lately, I have been dreaming of going to France. It is my top destination right now. Your beatiful France prose has me even more destined. Thank you.

5:30 AM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous dave said...

Hey Molly,

Some of our best culinary memories come from pint-sized kitchens. It's not the size of the kitchen that matters, it's the care that goes into your food.

I love roasted cauliflower, this looks delectable (as always). I've never steamed it first; I'll have to give it a shot. Thanks.

5:46 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Lia said...

I had a similar love affair with cauliflower when I was living in Paris. My host mother would bake it with a bechamel sauce and gruyere cheese. I made it a lot when I got back to school after my semester and a summer away, but this story reminded me that it's about time I make it again. Although, I think I might have to try this recipe first!

6:19 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger wheresmymind said...

Though I'm not a huge fan of the White Devil Veggie, I've learned that my Mom's technique of boiling it grey can be avoided all together! Olive oil and garlic roasting the WDV makes it more yummy...I usually mash it a bit with some parmesan cheese :)

6:51 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Julie said...

Your Paris apartment sounds like heaven. Just the words, Paris apartment are kind of magical, aren't they? I sometimes think I should have done that after college instead of getting a normal job, but then I would never have met my husband. He is infinitely worth it! I really like this preparation. Because we're in the fall/winter cooking season, I'm going to make a gross generalization and say that everything is better roasted!

7:20 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

I've got that book, too!
As your roasted cauliflower was so very delicious, I cannot but trust you on this cauliflower recipe, too:)

7:34 AM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous Luisa said...

Ah yes, the pint-sized Paris apartment. This post made me recall my own tiny kitchen there, where I had two burners, no oven, and a sink where the counter should have been. So, I became a master of balancing hot pots, mitts, prepped food and so on. All that good food made the balancing act worthwhile! :) This recipe sounds delicious - I've always been partial to my cauliflower with vinaigrette or mustard, but both together, AND with nutmeg? I'm running to the kitchen now!

7:59 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger hannah said...

i had the same kitchen only across the pyrenees in spain. it was lovely, wasnt it? i think it is time for me to grow up and give cauliflower another chance. roasting turned my heart back to brussel sprouts, i am sure it can do the same for this.

8:04 AM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous Liz said...

How appropriate that you followed the fennel salad recipe with a cauliflower recipe, as both fennel and cauliflower were on my "um...no thanks" list. But, for some reason, I found myself reaching for a head of fennel the other day and, in the spirit of trying new things, I also grabbed a head of cauliflower - remembering your carmelized cauliflower recipe. Both the salad and the cauliflower were wonderful, so thank you. (And thank you for the inspiration for the soup I made with the leftover cauliflower!)

8:52 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger krista said...

Your life in Paris story is very interesting, very nice writing.

9:03 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger christianne said...

I think we all had the same itty-bitty European kitchen! Though my Dublin apartment did have an oven with four electric burners, I shared the mini-fridge with 5 other women.

I'm excited to try basting the cauliflower. Lately, I've been roasting cauliflower with oil, curry powder, tumeric & garlic and its been absolutely fantastic. This should be a tasty variation.

10:04 AM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous jen said...

i love adding nutmeg and/or a dash of cinnamon to savory vegetables (like onions, for example) along with a tiny bit of butter. it always smells so fabulous and tastes so comforting, especially now that the weather has gotten colder. i love your writing and love reading about your food adventures =)

10:17 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger Carol said...

what a lovely story! and the sounds delicious.

10:49 AM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger AnnieKNodes said...

I never would've thought of putting nutmeg on cauliflower. It makes totally delicious sense! I can't wait to make this.

Your latest fall and winter vegetable posts are making me forget all about missing summer. Thanks!

12:49 PM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous Pam said...

Molly, I love the tone of this post as well as the recipe - a little sweet nostalgia... even though I never lived in Paris I did have similar market experiences there so I know just what you mean! Thank you! I love caulliflower, too, and usually top mine with mustard and a little Swiss or gruyere cheese - the two nutty flavors are great together!

1:15 PM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous ashb said...

Molly! this sounds delicious, thank you for sharing the wonderful little Paris story which led you to these cute as a button cauliflowers ;)

I will definitely try this recipe out soon!


1:31 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger a. said...

love it! like a scene from Amelie, this might be my favorite post, I enjoyed reading it this morning with a cup of coffee. You should write a book of short stories, involving food of course!

2:21 PM, October 24, 2006  
Blogger shuna fish lydon said...

you have made me wordless. all I can say is


11:41 PM, October 24, 2006  
Anonymous Julie said...

Mmm...of course, you made me recall my little apartment in Aix one summer...I love roasted cauliflower, but I usually do big flowery cross-section slices, and have never looked for little ones to roast whole. Clearly I have a new mission, especially since cauliflower is a VERY welcomed vegetable in our household. Thanks once again for a new thought, a new way...

3:37 AM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger Julia said...

hi molly,
oh, you can't imagine how much I enjoyed reading your story - this is exactly my dream...Paris(!) *sigh*
the cauliflower sounds delicious - really comfy, winter food- yum!

10:18 AM, October 25, 2006  
Blogger kickpleat said...

ooh, i'm envious of your parisian former life. glad you can still call it up at will! the cauliflower looks lovely and funny that, i've got some in the fridge (albeit, a bit larger than tiny).

12:24 PM, October 25, 2006  
Anonymous fbz said...

wow this instantly reminded me of some of the miraculously good meals i made in tiny parisian kitchens when i lived there: from tarts in the toaster oven to dairy free bechamels on the stove. the only caveat of the whole affair? you couldn't run the stove when the mini oven was running at the same time as the water heater otherwise the power would cut out for the whole apartment. i learned to time my cooking to perfection in that kitchen...

9:38 AM, October 26, 2006  
Anonymous Anita said...

Love your story! Makes me miss Paris...

3:46 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thank you, dear lobstersquad! I loved my "Amelie"-ish life too.

And thank you, Colleen! I hope you like this cauliflower as much as we do...

Judy, don't let anything get in your way - get thee to France! Hurry! I'd pack myself in your luggage, if I could...

You're right, Dave - the size (of a kitchen, of course!) doesn't matter; it's how you use the space. Plus, that tiny kitchen made me be creative - and the lack of an oven made me feel justified in trying all the cakes, pastries, tarts, etc. in the bakeries there! Now, that was pretty wonderful.

Oooh, Lia, thank you for the reminder! My host mother sometimes made cauliflower that way too, with bechamel and gruyere. It was so good. She also served it steamed sometimes, with vinaigrette, which is where I learned to love it that way. Those host mothers - they really know how to win a girl over.

Wheresmymind, you're killing me. The White Devil Veggie? Too funny! I'm so glad that you and Satan have reconciled your differences with a little olive oil, garlic, and parmesan cheese...

Julie, I hear you - there is something about the words "Paris apartment" that's sort of transporting. I should try chanting it sometime when I'm upset - maybe I would be magically swept away on a floating croissant? Here's hoping...

Pille, you must have very good taste in cookbooks, my dear.

Luisa, we must have had the exact same apartment. I too had a sink where my counter should have been - quite an adventure, wasn't it? Oh, to chop eggplant on top of my dresser again...

Hannah, yes, girlfriend, get some cauliflower and give it another try! Hurry up already! You could try the recipe above, or how about this one, which I wrote about for Seattlest last fall? It's my other favorite way to eat cauliflower, and I've yet to meet a person who didn't like it.

Liz, that makes me so happy! I'm honored to have won you over to the ways of fennel and cauliflower. Three cheers!

Thank you, Krista.

Christianne, I know - I too am starting to think that we all lived in the very same apartment! But as for cauliflower, yes, it's so good with curry and turmeric - and a little garam masala is nice too. I'll bet you could try adding some spices to this basting mixture, actually, and you might get a similar result...

Thank you, Jen! And I wholeheartedly agree about "sweet" spices and butter with savory vegetables - so wonderful. You know, if you want, you could substitute melted butter for about half of the olive oil called for in this recipe. It would be delicious, I'm sure.

Thanks, Carol!

You're welcome, AnnieKNodes! A little whiff of nutmeg on cauliflower is pretty dreamy stuff. You'd better try it...

Thank you, Pam. Cauliflower + mustard + gruyere = my kind of dish. Looks as though I'm going to have to buy another couple of heads already!

Thanks, ashb! I hope you like it...

Thanks, a.! And as for the book, I'll see what I can do...

Aww, Shuna, that makes me smile. Thank you!

Julie, I too am usually a devotee of the flowery cross-section method of roasting cauliflower, but this recipe is a good reason for straying. Hope you and G agree! xo

Julia, I know just what you mean. Paris! Sigh.

Kickpleat, I do believe that there's some roasted cauliflower in your future, m'dear.

fbz, you were so lucky to have a toaster oven - even if it was tricky to work with! All I had was a regular ole slot toaster, so no homemade tarts for me...

Thank you, Anita. Me too.

4:20 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Cynthia said...

Hi Molly,
I just wanted to say that I've been reading Orangette for a while now and have always admired your writing. I've started my own blog (finally!) and hope it's ok that I've linked to you.
Take care,

7:22 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

I think I might have just... yeah, I did.
The earth moved.

7:51 PM, October 26, 2006  
Blogger Molly said...

Thanks so much for your sweet words, Cynthia! And of course you can link to me - you can link to anyone you want, my dear. It's an honor. Welcome to the food blogosphere!

And cookiecrumb, oooh my, it certainly sounds exciting over there. Whew!

11:33 AM, October 27, 2006  
Blogger Vincci said...

Today I spotted a small head of PURPLE cauliflower on sale and I just had to buy it. I'm definitely going to give this recipe a shot!

12:16 AM, October 28, 2006  
Blogger Kim said...

I made this recipe using regular ole cauliflower the other night (couldn't find any small and dainty types), and it was still delish. Thanks! Kim

4:59 PM, November 10, 2006  
Anonymous Doug Barber said...

You may be the reincarnation of Elizabeth David, your memories of Paris remind me of the fascinating short paragraphs that preceded the recipes in her *French Country Cooking*.

I would do without an oven, to live in Paris, eating runny poached eggs and the cauliflower you describe.

12:00 PM, November 23, 2006  
Blogger Sophia said...

Oh, this was delicious, with a small organic cauliflower and a loaf of rosemary bread and slices of white cheddar on the side. I've been scared of cauliflower for years, but this was so tender and sweet and tangy I will be making it again and again this winter. Thank you!

8:50 PM, December 11, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps a bit late, but I have recently stumbled upon your blog and in this post have realized I have the same apartement and the same job for the year, albeit in St. Gervais. Will try the cauliflower soon and love the blog.

12:37 PM, November 18, 2007  
Blogger Hadley said...

Hi! I just found your blog about a week ago, thanks to my librarian mother who discovered your book and then passed this delicious secret on to me. I love it, I just graduated from college, and this makes me feel like maybe I will be able to construct the life that I really want, which is I think similar to yours. I spent a semester in France during college and now I look at apartment listings on the Paris Craig's list and torture myself way too often. I really wanted to look at the site you posted about what you did in Paris, but the link says that the page is unfindable (direct translation). Do you know if there is somewhere else I could find it?

9:32 AM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger Molly said...

So nice to "meet" you, Hadley. And I absolutely know what you mean about torturing yourself with Craigslist Paris. I've done that more than I would like to admit! As for the link, it must have changed since I first posted it, but this one should work. I'll correct it above, too.

10:11 AM, July 13, 2009  
Blogger Hadley said...

thank you!

2:52 PM, July 15, 2009  
Blogger Anna said...

I am pickled in wistful envy. You paint such wonderful pictures of your life there that I find myself wishing I was brave enough to trade the job and the condo for a tiny apartment in Paris. Le sigh.

12:09 PM, March 02, 2010  

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