Brain Food

cauliflower brainWhy ‘Brain food’, you may ask. Well, this post is about cauliflower, so the name works on several levels. First, cauliflower is brain food because it’s a good source of choline, a B vitamin known for its role in brain development. But in addition to that squidgy mass in your melon, cauliflower also benefits your heart and digestion, can help fight cancer, reduce inflammation, and all sorts of other good stuff. You can find more details here. Clearly, adding more cauliflower to your diet is a no-brainer. (See what I did there?) Finally, I call it brain food because, quite simply, it looks like brains, and that’s a good enough reason for me!

What’s really interesting to me about this cruciferous powerhouse, though, is how creatively it can be used. Sure, you can simply steam it, sauté it, eat it raw as crudite, or even boil it (though I believe there’s a special place in hell for those who boil vegetables to death), but it starts to get fun when you use it as a substitute for other carbs. I went low-carb about a year ago, dramatically reducing the sugar, grains and starchy vegetables in my diet. I did it for health, rather than weight-loss reasons, though a pleasant side effect is that I can now fit into 15-year-old trousers that I was unable to wear for years.

Because of this change in diet, I had to fill the gap previously occupied by bread, rice, potatoes and the like. I was a real carboholic, so this was not easy at first.  But then I heard about something called cauliflower rice, or cauliflower couscous, as some people refer to it. I confess I was extremely dubious about this initially. But then I figured, what the hell? I do like cauliflower anyway, so why not give it a try? Well, I made it once, and I was hooked. It’s easy, it’s healthy (technically healthful, but that just sounds silly), and most importantly, it tastes good! You can use it anywhere you would use most grains, such as with a curry or Thai stir-fry, in a grain salad such as tabbouleh, etc. I confess I’ve never tried making risotto with it, and suspect that might turn into a gloppy mess, but even if that is the case, there are so many other great uses, it doesn’t have to be perfect for everything.

So here’s how you make cauliflower rice:

Take a head – or half a head if you don’t want to make too much – of washed cauliflower. Remove the leaves and the tough core. Chop it up into reasonably small pieces, and chuck them in a food processor.

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Pulse it on and off for a bit until you’ve got grain-sized pieces. Don’t do it for too long or it will start to turn into puree. This could be fine for some recipes, but not what we’re looking for here. You may be left with the odd larger chunk or two, but you can either just eat these while you’re cooking (my technique of choice) , or re-process them afterwards.

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Tip the rice out of the food processor. You can now use it raw, sauté it in a little oil or butter, or nuke it for a minute or two. Really, whatever is your preference. Try it different ways, and see what floats your boat. Personally, I prefer sautéing it, but I can get a little lazy so often just chuck it in the microwave. If it’s going to be soaking up a lot of sauce anyway, it doesn’t need much of its own flavour.

 

Another creative way to use cauliflower is to make mashed potatoes. But of course without the potatoes.

First, cook the cauliflower. You can steam, nuke, boil or bake (at about 180C) the chopped-up florets. If baking, you may want to cover the cauliflower with foil to avoid the edges burning.

When the cauliflower is cooked soft, mash it by hand, or better yet, puree it in a food processor or with a hand blender, along with any other texture or flavour enhancers you like, such as butter, milk, cheese or garlic. Add salt and pepper to taste, and voilà, cauliflower mash! At this point you can still add other bits and bobs, if you like, such as spring onions, chopped olives, etc. Have it as a side, or use it to top fish, shepherd’s or cottage pie instead of potatoes.

 

Now here’s where it gets really interesting: cauliflower crust pizza

Once again, when I first heard of these, I was extremely doubtful. I mean, mimicking rice or potato is one thing, but pizza crust?!? That just sounds mental. However, since I do consider pizza to be nature’s perfect food, and missed it terribly on the low carb diet, I decided to give it a try. My first attempt followed a totally vegan recipe, meaning no eggs to bind the dough together. Ultimately, it was okay, but using chia seeds to bind the cauliflower crust together created a crust that was very much unlike a real pizza base. So I hunted around for an alternative recipe. I found one on the BBC Good Food site which seemed worthy of a try. I only followed it for the crust recipe, mind you. I’m enough of a seasoned cook (ha ha) to make a yummy sauce on my own, but I’m always grateful to have something to work from, which I can then modify as I see fit, or depending on what ingredients I actually have to hand at that moment.

For the base, you’ll need:

1 cauliflower (about 750g/1lb 10oz)
100g ground almonds
2 eggs, beaten
dried oregano
a little salt and pepper

Heat oven to 200C/180C fan/gas 6. Remove the leaves from the cauliflower and trim the stalk end, then cut into chunks. Pulse half the cauliflower in a food processor until finely chopped, as described previously. Transfer to a bowl and repeat with the remaining half. Spoon the cauliflower in a bowl, and microwave for a few minutes until softened. I don’t like to specify cooking times for nukers, as they really vary a lot, so I suggest starting with three minutes, have a look, and add more time if the cauliflower isn’t soft enough. In my microwave, a reasonably large cauliflower is soft enough after about 5 minutes. Tip onto a clean tea towel and leave to cool a little. Once cool enough to handle, scrunch up the tea towel and squeeze as much liquid as you can out of the cauliflower (this is important!), then transfer to a dry bowl.

P1050228P1050233Stir in the ground almonds, egg, oregano, and salt and pepper to taste. Line a baking tray with baking parchment and grease with oil or butter. Mound the cauliflower mix into the centre of the tray, then use a spoon and your hands to spread out into a round. (Or be a rebel and make it a rectangle.)  I’d aim to make it approximately 2-3 cms/ 1/8″ thick.

P1050238Bake for 15-20 mins until golden brown and starting to crisp a little at the edges. Again, the timing will depend a lot on your oven, as well as how thick you’ve made your crust. The BBC recipe doesn’t say this, but I’ve had good results flipping the crust over when it’s nicely browned on one side, to ensure it’s set all the way through. You’ll have to be quite gentle if you do this, though, to keep it from falling apart.

While the base is cooking, or even better, before you start it, you can make the sauce. For this you’ll need:

1 can/pack chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp tomato purée
1 garlic clove (or more if you’re a big fan), crushed or minced
1 onion, chopped as fine or chunky as you like it
1 stick of celery, minced finely – optional
1 carrot, minced finely – optional
olive oil or butter

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Start by sautéing the onion with a little salt in the olive oil or butter. If you’re using the celery and carrot as well, to make a soffritto (which I recommend!), add those here as well, and cook until they’re all very soft, stirring regularly. Then add the garlic, cooking it for a few minutes. Some people add their garlic right at the beginning, but I find, particularly if it’s chopped finely, it can burn easily, so I add it later.

P1050235Pour in the chopped tomatoes and tomato purée, and leave to simmer gently for a little while. Keep an eye on it, giving it a stir now and then. You want the sauce to get nice and thick, which can take anywhere from 10-30 minutes. Make sure to give it a taste, and add salt and/or pepper as needed.

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For toppings, the world is your oyster. Not that I’d recommend putting oysters on pizza, mind you, but whatever floats your boat. I prefer one or more of the following:

mozzarella cheese (mozzarella di bufala is the best!)
fresh basil
grated parmesan cheese
olives
mushrooms
pepperoni, chorizo or ham slices
sliced bell peppers
aubergine slices
more garlic and/or onions
chilli flakes or fresh chilli slices

Really, just about anything you like can go on pizza.  Depending on how al dente you like your veg toppings, you might want to pre-cook them a little.

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When your base and sauce are ready, it’s time to assemble the pizza. Spread the sauce thinly out on the base, almost to the edges. Then spread whatever toppings you’ve chosen on to the pizza (but save the fresh basil until after it’s done) and bake at 240C/220C fan/gas 8 for around 10-15 minutes, making sure not to let anything on top burn. Remove it carefully from the oven, and either slice it into wedges, or just tuck into the whole pie. Note that, unlike standard pizza, this crust may be a little too delicate to pick up slices by hand. I suggest using a knife and fork. That’ll also keep you from devouring it too quickly, something I am certainly guilty of!

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So there you go. Just a few examples of some great dishes to make with the humble cauliflower.  And if you want even more ideas, check out some really cool alternative cauliflower recipes here. Your brain will thank you.

cauliflower brain

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Explosion in the vegetable aisle! In praise of the BIG ASS salad

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Real men don’t eat salad. But if they did, they’d eat BIG ASS salads. Side salads? Pfft. Let’s face it, when eating out, if you get a choice of sides, say fries or salad, are you really going to pick the salad? No siree, fries all the way. And for a starter, who orders a salad? Okay, I admit, I’m a bit of a sucker for anything with cheese in it, so a beetroot and goat cheese salad or mozzarella, basil and tomato, yeah I could do that. But a green salad? Highly unlikely.

Given these views, you might be surprised to learn that I’ve eaten pretty much the same thing every day for the past year or so that I’ve lunched at home. And being that, as of this writing,  I’ve been between jobs for quite a long time, that is a lot of lunches! Could it be? Well, given the title of this piece, I think it’s pretty obvious where I’m going with this. Yes folks, my daily lunch is none other than a salad. But let’s be clear, these are big ass salads that I’m talking here. Perhaps even BIG ASS salads, but for the sake of not having to hit the caps lock key any more than I have to, let’s just leave that as ‘big ass’, shall we?

Part of the reason for this (some might say) extreme salad consumption is that I went low carb towards the end of 2015, so I needed an alternative to the typical sandwich ritual that so many of us share. Then I found out I was sensitive (intolerant? foodist, even?) to gluten, furthering my need for a sarnie substitute. Enter the big ass salad.

One of the biggest knocks on salads is that they’re not filling. Surely you’ll be hungry an hour after eating one, right? Well, maybe, but honestly, I’m pretty much hungry an hour after I eat most anything. There are a few exceptions to this rule, such as a massive steak and chips (especially in Argentina!), an entire New York pizza pie, and anything and everything at Thanksgiving.  The important thing to note is that a big ass salad, with the proper ingredients, can be filling, satisfying, and – though you may not care – healthy.

For me, the keys to a successful big salad are the two Vs: volume and variety. This is a big ass salad after all – emphasis on the big – so naturally it needs volume. I like my salads to go to 11, piled high on the plate and spilling over the edges. Remember, this thing’s gotta fill you up!

The old adage ‘variety is the spice of life’ has never been more apt. For me, a successful big salad needs to have at least 10 ingredients. Why 10? I suppose keeping with the Spinal Tap reference, I could say 11, but that’s just getting a bit silly, so I’m sticking with 10.

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First there are the staple veggies:

  • leaves – Whatever you like. Lettuce, rocket/arugula, baby spinach, watercress, etc. Whatever you prefer. I often keep multiple types on hand, and use a mix.
  • tomatoes – I prefer cherry, baby plum or grape, as they’re sweeter and tend to have more flavour than the big ones, particularly the supermarket variety.
  • carrots – I usually grate one in as it’s easier to pick the pieces up with a fork unless you can slice them super thin.
  • beetroot – I always have some of the packaged cooked ones around, as they’re really simple to use. Forget about cooking them from scratch unless you’ve got some time, as they take forever.
  • cucumber – My wife hates these, so I only use them if the salad’s just for me.
  • avocado – Gotta be ripe! Nothing worse than a rock hard avo. We always have a few in different stages of ripeness so there’s usually a ripe one on hand when it’s needed.
  • spring onions – Get a little zing with some spring. Scallions to us Yanks.
  • peppers – Red, yellow and orange are sweeter than green, so my preference.
  • radishes – These are great to add a little peppery crunch. They seem to keep a nice long time in the fridge too.

Then there’s the protein. This is key for a big ass salad, otherwise, let’s be honest, it’s just rabbit food. Depending on your tastes, you can go loads of different ways with this. Some ideas are:

  • tinned fish – I like tuna, but sardines, mackerel, etc. also work. Tinned salmon is usually the wild kind, so that’s a good option as well.  In fact, any tinned seafood or fish can be used.
  • smoked salmon – This always feels very civilised! The nice thing about the thinly sliced packages is that you can keep emergency supplies in the freezer, and thaw them out in a couple of minutes by sitting them in hot water.
  • fresh meat or fish – Fry up a thin steak or nice piece of fish, slice it up, and you’re good to go.
  • leftover meat – Yesterday’s roast chicken, beef or lamb, shredded  or cubed, works a treat.
  • bacon – Yeah baby! The meat product you hate to love, but you know you do! (sorry vegetarians, more for us) Get good quality bacon. I go for cuts without sugar whenever I can.
  • hard boiled eggs – A great option for vegetarians and carnivores alike. So much nutrition packed into these things. We always have a few boiled eggs at the ready in the fridge, but they’re quick to make if you haven’t planned in advance. Often I’ll add an egg in addition to another protein.
  • cheese – Another vegetarian staple. I don’t know how you vegans live without it! Cube up some cheddar, crumble some feta, shave some parmesan, take your pick. I’ve never met a cheese I didn’t like. (Though I confess that I’ve never tried Casu Marzu  – Sardinian maggot cheese – and don’t know if I would.)

The fun stuff, the extras that give your big salad extra flavour and/or texture

  • nuts – The captains of crunch! I find walnuts tend to go particularly well, but use whatever you like.
  • sun dried tomatoes – Tomatoes taken to a whole new level. These are so ridiculously flavourful, just a few chopped up will go a long way.
  • olives – Aaaah, concentrated salty goodness!
  • beans – Chickpeas, lentils, red or black beans can add body and flavour (not to mention gas).

The good (for you), the bad and the ugly. These are optional ingredients that I tend to primarily add for their nutritional benefit. In actuality, though, they can taste pretty nice.

  • seaweed – A bit of an acquired taste, but can add a good touch of seafoody saltiness. There are a number of different types you can choose from such as dulse, wakame and sea spaghetti. If it’s dried, make sure to soak it first to soften it up.
  • sprouts – These also come in a variety of types: alfalfa, lentil, even quinoa and broccoli. I like to add a handful of these, as they’re really nutritious.
  • sauerkraut – I know this sounds weird, but I actually make my own kraut at home, as the fresh stuff (not the kind you buy in the supermarket) is a natural probiotic, so good for your gut!
  • Seeds – Some of these little guys, particularly pumpkin, flax, chia and hemp, are high in Omega 3s, as well as adding a bit of crunch.

Finally, the dressing. An absolute essential, a good dressing ties the whole salad together without overpowering it. My golden rule with dressing is NO BOTTLES! Store-bought dressing is nearly always filled with sugar and other crap you neither want nor need. And it’s bloody easy to make your own! I tend to go for a simple oil and vinegar concoction, with a 2:1 ratio of oil to vinegar. I use extra virgin olive oil with sherry, balsamic or red wine vinegar, depending on my mood. Sometimes I’ll use lemon juice in place of the vinegar, which works particularly nice with fish and seafood salads. You can easily play around with dressings, adding other ingredients such as fresh herbs (especially basil!) mustard, soy sauce, a bit of mayonnaise for creaminess, etc. Oh, and don’t forget the salt and pepper, or even the coolest salad could wind up bland.

When preparing the salad, I like to chop or grate the ingredients up quite fine, adding them to a big bowl as I go. Then I pour in the dressing, toss it all up, and scoop it onto a plate. A big plate. And there you have it, the big as salad: a tasty, filling and healthful meal that just happens to look like an explosion in the vegetable aisle. Enjoy!

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