It's versatile, healthy, low in carbs, low in fat, high in vitamin C, and sometimes appears in the most stunning unexpected hues. (The green underwater corally looking one is confusingly called Romanescu Broccoli, since it really is cauliflower.)
I’m including these amazing variations, even though we’re cooking with their standard white cousin, first because I can't resist them but also to remind you of the magic of vegetables. I've been inspired by a wonderful new Jewish vegetarian cookbook -- from Lithuania in the 1930’s (!)
1930's Jewish vegetarian cookbook
Who knew that decades before “You are what you eat,” and “Meat is murder”, before the Moosewood Cookbook, before the veggie burger, before kale forgodsake, there was the Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook. In fact, it's a new-old cookbook, forgotten for decades, and recently found in a Yiddish library in New York, translated and now published in English. (see below for more)
I like cauliflower best well-steamed or roasted – or of course, fried in breadcrumbs - when it leaves behind its slightly less appealing crunchy self, and becomes a new creature. Soft, giving, tasty, and a welcoming home for strong sauces and flavours. It's also becoming the go-to trendsetting vege, cut into thick slabs and grilled, like meat; steamed and crumbled to replace couscous; or mashed into a gluten free, almost carb free pizza base.
Today we're giving it the classic European treatment. Steamed, then baked with a béchamel sauce and breadcrumbs for crunch. There’s also a simple 10 minute version, just steamed with breadcrumbs. Both are delicious!
The recipe comes from Sydney grandmother Agi Adler. Last week, we made her spinach. This week it’s her cauliflower.
Agi’s mother couldn't teach her to cook. She died during World War Two, taken on the last Nazi transport of Jews from Budapest. Agi was 14 years old. She never saw her mother again.
Agi survived the war, though none of her close family did. In 1950, aged 20, she travelled to Australia on a ship called the Cyrenia, a young refugee, alone, hoping to start a new life. She did that, and taught herself to recreate the rich cuisine of her home town of Budapest, including this dish.
Cauliflower with Bechamel sauce
Serves 6 as a side dish
- 1 head cauliflower
- 2 ½ tablespoons butter or margarine
- ½ cup plain flour. Agi uses "continental flour", which she swears by. From the packet, it appears to contain some semolina. “Menorah,” says Agi as we read the ingredients. "That company was set up by someone who came on the boat with me.”
- ½ litre cooking water from the cauliflower
- ½ litre milk (or soy milk)
- I cup breadcrumbs. Home-made crumbs are best of all. Crunchy Japanese Panko is also good.
- Optional: 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or pecorino cheese
1, Break cauliflower into florets and steam for 10 minutes. You want them to be still firm. Keep the water for the béchamel sauce.
2. To make the sauce: Melt butter. Add flour. Stir over a low flame with a wooden spoon till it coagulates. Whisk in milk [1/2 litre] and water from the cauliflower [1/2 litre]. You want a THICK béchamel, so stop if it gets too runny. If you want a sharper tasting dish, add your grated cheese to the bechamel sauce now.
3. Put the steamed cauliflower in a baking dish. Cover with béchamel. Bake for 30 minutes.
4. Fry breadcrumbs with salt. When the dish is ready, sprinkle over sauce.
NOTE: In a kosher kitchen you can’t mix milk and meat, so Jewish cooks are often searching for alternatives to butter and milk. Agi sometimes makes this dish with soy milk instead of regular milk if she wants to serve it with a meat meal. In the modern world, this has led to common ground between creative kosher cooks and creative dairy free cooks. One of our test kitchens made it with coconut milk, and declared it a winner!
TEST KITCHEN- gluten free
On the other side of Sydney, Margo tried this out in her gluten free kitchen and what the hell made it dairy free as well. (Basically. She went no milk, though she did add some Parmesan cheese, which she says is quite low lactose.)
"I made the cauliflower this week with my usual funky substitutions.
I used a 400 g can of coconut milk, some of the reserved cooking liquor from the cauliflower, and 1/3-1/2 cup gluten free flour - a combo of rice and tapioca flours. I also added two cloves of garlic and about half a cup of grated Parmesan.
The result was great: a beautifully white and fluffy, creamy, yummy, super-star of a side-dish. And my finicky kids ate it too!"
Version 2: Steamed, with breadcrumbs
The simple, pared down version, serves 6 as a side.
- 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets.
- 1 cup breadcrumbs
- Salt and pepper – but mostly salt
- optional extras: a clove of garlic, crushed; chopped spring onions or chives, fresh or dried chilli, grated lemon rind
- Steam cauliflower florets till soft ie almost ready to eat, about 20 mins.
- Fry breadcrumbs in butter or oil, adding salt and pepper. If you are using any extras, start with the garlic, add chilli and half the onions/chives, before adding the crumbs.
- Drain cauliflower. Put into a baking dish, cover with fried breadcrumbs, pressing them into the florets. Bake for final 5 minutes. Sprinkle with remaining chives, and lemon rind.
I made this in Jerusalem, with real bread breadcrumbs, and it was really good. I fried my breadcrumbs in a mix of olive and rapeseed oil and spiced it up with garlic and onions. Verdict: quick, easy and delicious.
In her gluten free kitchen in Melbourne, Amanda made the simple version using butter and gluten free breadcrumbs, and she loved the result too.
“Smells amazing! Felt like I was back in the kitchen with my late grandmother who used to make crumbed cauliflower all the time :) Nothing like a familiar smell to warm the heart!”
The Vilna Vegetarian cookbook
This vegetarian cookbook - now about 75 years old - was written by Fania Lewando in the capital of Lithuania, Vilnius; then called Wilno, or to its Jews, Vilna. Between the wars, Vilna was a lively, thriving, cultured city, home to 100,000 Jews - more than 40% of the population. They unashamedly regarded themselves as the cream of European Jewry.
And there in the 1930’s, a Polish Jewish woman was running a vegetarian restaurant!
It was popular, despite not being cheap, and its high end patrons included writers, artists and the stars of the Yiddish theatre - the celebrities of their day. We know that painter Marc Chagall was among her customers, because he wrote in her Guestbook.
Lewando was a chef and a crusader for vegetarianism. She held nutrition classes and her cookbook contains beautiful drawings of vegetables
These lively, funny, engaging entries are for me the most compelling part of the book, bringing to life that vanished world of Lithuanian Jewry, which was to disappear so soon afterwards in the Holocaust. Some guest left compliments for the chef and others commented on each other, like a Facebook post.
- "It’s a -a-a-a mechaye" – Itsik Manger writes, using the Yiddish word for wonderful. Awesome we'd say today.
- "The supper was just as Manger said" – Y. Gitterman
- “Everyone can be a vegetarian once in a while,” writes Yudl Mark, “from Kovno and New York”. The patron after him isn't having that.
- “Not ‘everyone can be a vegetarian once in a while’! It is everyone’s responsibility to be one. You can become more human; you are on a higher level when you realize your stomach is not a graveyard, not a ‘tomb of the unknown’ where there are tens or hundreds of living creatures. It is particularly a pleasure and responsibility to be a vegetarian in Vilna where there is Lewando, the poet of the vegetarian kitchen. Bravo, Lewando! With your obstinate propaganda for vegetarianism, you do more good than those who go on and on about brotherly love."
world war two
So much of Jewish life was lost in World War Two, including this ground breaking restaurant and its committed, principled chef. In 1941 Fania Lewando and her husband tried to escape the ghetto which the Nazis created in Vilna, herding all the Jews together in one small section of the city. Thewere never seen again. They escaped east into Russia, where they are believed to have been killed by Soviet soldiers, although the exact circumstances of their deaths are unknown.
The book leaves a bitter-sweet aftertaste, as so many of these stories of loss and suffering do. The publication in English of this cookbook brings Fania and her feisty, funny, argumentative, appreciative diners back to life. We will make some dishes from this book to honour her - and them.
Next week: A Russian dish, an experiment involving the great writer Leo Tolstoy