Thursday, November 24, 2016

A New Thanksgiving Tradition: Riced Cauliflower With Mushrooms

I first heard of riced cauliflower from my brother. He avoids carbs, shunning even bagels from Ess-a-Bagel, whose re-opening is one of the high points of 2016. He described riced cauliflower as a strange but wonderful product, made entirely of ground cauliflower but used as a rice substitute.

Whn I paid his family a visit, he presented me with riced cauliflower sauteed with a mix of onions and peppers. The dish was tasty enough for me to want to play with this new ingredient myself.

Like most people who have enjoyed riced cauliflower, my brother bought his from Trader Joe's, which offers packages of riced cauliflower in both refrigerated and frozen versions. I asked one worker which she one she recommended, and she said she preferred the refrigerated for its "fresher taste"; a co-worker overheard our conversation and said he liked the convenience of the frozen. In practice, both products are frequently out of stock, so I buy whatever is available.

You could also rice your own cauliflower, but this taste test gave higher marks to the Trader Joe's riced cauliflower than homemade - true for both the hand grated and grated by food processor. If you do go the homemade route, testing by Epicurious suggests that both hand grating and food processing work, with machine grating winning the battle of convenience. 

I tried both kinds of Trader Joe's riced cauliflower on their own the first couple of times - when I get my hands on a nice head of cauliflower I'm more likely to think roasting than pulverizing - before my mind wander to my favorite seasoning ingredient, soy sauce. If riced cauliflower was good, riced cauliflower with soy sauce was better. And if riced cauliflower with soy sauce was better, the addition of garlic or onion, the category I call "some kind of allium" (with members such as chives and garlic scapes alongside the heads-of-clan) would be better still. The additions were as tasty as I thought they'd be.

And then my gaze fell upon a package of mushrooms.

These were regular supermarket button mushrooms, full of both umami and water, not porcini dust. I loved the idea of infusing the bland rice with the flavor of mushrooms, but getting the proportions would be important.

I could have diced the mushrooms and sauteed them with the allium, then added the rice. I opted for another route: shredding.

My food processor made very quick work of the mushrooms. In the photo above, the mushrooms are nicely quartered, but I discovered I could skip this nicety and rip the head from the stem and shove the mushroom down the feeder tube. I could pile them into a four-'shoom collision and push them along to the blade. The process was oddly amusing and over quickly. 

I also shredded the allium - whatever I had around. Garlic, onion, sometimes a combo. The recipe made good use of whatever was lying around.

I think of button mushrooms as largely white, but when shredded, the dark brown gills are revealed to be a distinctive color as well.

I dumped the mushroom-allium mixture into a large skillet and added the rice and about 2 Tablespoons soy sauce and some water  - perhaps 3 Tablespoons. 

You could work more carefully - finely diced onion first, then the mushrooms, then the rice, then the soy sauce and water - but the dish cooks very quickly so the sequence is not very important. I recommend cooking the mushroom rice over medium heat and stirring it frequently. The mushrooms and the rice will extrude water, but depending on the cooking temperature, you might have to add a little water to prevent scorching. I tend to use the threat of scorching to add another swig of soy sauce. Your mushroom rice should be ready in 5-10 minutes.

What can you do with the finished product? Serve it in a bowl, or for fancy people, in individual ramekins. If you're feeling playful, make your guests guess what the hell they're eating. I predict very few people will know.

Cauliflower rice plays nicely with real rice, too. I was content to let the brown bastmati from Kalustyan's mingle on the fork, but there's no reason (other than taste, dietary restrictions, not having both on hand, etc.) not to mix the two into a super-casserole.

Mushroom riced cauliflower also lends itself to serving as stuffing. I happened to have collard greens as a side, so Stuffed Collard Greens were born. If I had planned ahead, I could have used some of those toothpicks with colorful frills to show I meant business. Keep all of these options in mind for your fancy Thanksgiving dinner.

So this Thanksgiving, when vegetarian or no-carb camps aren't the only factions, and anecdote and media report families refusing to eat together because of political divisions, it's nice to have an unexpected base of agreement that can please all sides. And for that, we could all be thankful.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

When Mediocre Produce Happens to Good People - Zucchini

Who knew that Rob Zombie  and his wife Sherri Moon were vegans?

Once I absorbed that information, I was stuck by another odd tidbit from an interview the Zombies gave to Vegan Health & Fitness magazine. When asked for a favorite vegan dish, Sherri suggested grilled zucchini.

Zucchini? Really? This is your vegan proselytizing food? 

Well, perhaps some tender young zucchini, fresh from the market, might win some converts. 

But what about the oversize, bloated, woody and seedy zucchini baseball bats that you find this time of year?

For those less prepossessing specimens, simple grilling is not enough. You'll need a cooking method that prevents rubbery texture and waterlogged flavor. 

I recommend this one: grating the zucchini then sauteing it with mint and a representative of the garlic/onion family.

First, the grating & sauteing. This is the best way to deal with the soggy mess that autumn zucchinis can become. Break down those cell walls! Liberate that liquid (to destroy it). The one-two punch of grating and sauteing really concentrates the zucchini's flavor.

Next, the seasoning. Any kind of allium could work - finely chopped onions, garlic, scallions, red onion, chives, garlic scapes, etc. 

Just make sure it's very finely diced. And I finally found something worthwhile to do with the fresh mint I've been growing in my garden, much more dignified work than serving as a soon-to-be-discarded garnish. You'll need a handful of mint, coarsely chopped. Also key, and omitted at your own peril: a pinch or two of salt.

The recipe is simple, with just a few ingredients, but omit any and you will be denied the glory of the dish. The recipe is also very forgiving. The zucchini can be limp and none too fresh. Spare only the rotten and moldy. The allium can be a stray clove or two of garlic, or the leftover quarter of an onion you used for sandwiches. We should all be so tolerant!

Zucchini with Some-Kind-of-Allium & Mint:


2 or 3 zucchini or summer squash, blossom and stem ends removed, grated

Garlic cloves, garlic scape blossoms, onion, chives, shallot or other member of the allium family, very finely diced to yield 1 Tablespoon (garlic family) - 2 Tablespoons (onion family), or more to taste 

Handful of fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, or 1 teaspoon dried mint
1/4 teaspoon salt


Spray a cast iron skillet or other frying pan with a film of oil, or more oil if desired. Saute onions or garlic for 30-50 seconds over medium heat, then add the grated zucchini and salt. Mix thoroughly to avoid scorching, adding a small amount of water if necessary.

Continue stirring, pressing down on zucchini mixture to release liquid. If using dried mint, add it now.

After a few minutes, zucchini will extrude liquid. If using fresh mint, add it now. Raise the flame under the pan to encourage the released liquid to evaporate. (You may be astonished by just how much liquid escapes - I know I was - but you'll be glad you let that flavor-dilutor go.) The whole cooking time should take you around 5 minutes.

Once the zucchini mixture appears dry, give it a final stir and serve.

Use the zucchini as a side dish or as a topping for bruschetta. I also find that the combination of flavorful zucchini and crunchy radish, sliced thin, brings out the best in both components. 

I've become fond enough of this dish to think of it as the best way to serve zucchini -- even when it isn't mediocre.