My Mother’s Fried Cauliflower

Preparation info

  • Difficulty

    Easy

  • Yield:

    4–6

    servings

Appears in

My mother always fried up cauliflower late at night. Long ago she had decided it—or her fluffy buttermilk pancakes—was the perfect antidote to flagging appetites, so she would make a batch after she noticed one of us had eaten very little at dinner.

During school holidays or when one of us lay afflicted with some childhood bug, it was often past eleven o’clock when she carried the tray into the TV room, piled high with bronzed cauliflower nuggets and golden lemon quarters. We ate fast, lest we miss Zacherley pulling up his wife’s hair or the Mummy’s response when offered thirteen tanna leaves.

Because we polished it off so quickly, I always assumed it took no time to prepare. Not so. The cauliflower must be boiled until tender before being breaded and fried—necessitating another large pot to wash. I once tried to skip this step, but the whole purpose of fried foods is the contrast of the crisp and crunchy coating the soft and yielding.

I have come upon a technique, though, that works with fresh young cauliflower. If you pour boiling water over small florets and let them steep awhile in a bowl, you can eliminate the parboiling.

To coat the cauliflower, my mother usually used matzoh meal, which falls somewhere between bread crumbs and flour in terms of thickness. Because it is so bland—it lacks even salt—it must be generously seasoned. She used lots of garlic, lemon peel, and, when she had them on hand, finely minced anchovies for a zesty nuance not readily identifiable by anchovy haters.

For perfectly fried cauliflower, I rely on two simple tricks. When possible, let the coated florets set at least fifteen minutes (before frying) to allow the egg dip to dry to a gluelike paste, so that the matzoh meal is less likely to fall off and burn in the oil while frying. And divide the seasoned coating mixture into two piles. After a while, dredging the egg-dipped florets into the matzoh meal renders the meal ragged with little wet eggy clumps. So, when the matzoh meal is just too lumpy to coat the cauliflower, I replace it with a fresh supply.

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Ingredients

  • 1 medium head of cauliflower, preferably young and fresh
  • Salt
  • About cups matzoh meal
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon grated lemon zest
  • 2–3 teaspoons pressed or very finely minced fresh garlic
  • 2–3 anchovies, finely minced (optional)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
  • Olive oil, for frying

Accompaniment

  • lemon wedges

Method

  1. Break the cauliflower into small florets and put them in a large, heatproof bowl. Sprinkle with 1 teaspoon of salt. Bring a large pot of water to a rapid boil and pour over the cauliflower, covering it by at least an inch. Cover the bowl and allow the cauliflower to steep in the water for 5–8 minutes. Stir it around a bit so all of the pieces are sloshed by the water. If the florets test fork-tender (but before they are soft and mushy), drain them well. If not, let them steep for a few more minutes. (Alternatively, if you have a very mature head of cauliflower, boil the florets in salted water until just tender and drain them.)
  2. In a bowl, stir together the matzoh meal, oregano, lemon zest, garlic, anchovies, if using, and plenty of salt and pepper. (Use the greater amounts of garlic and anchovies for a zippier taste.) Divide the mixture in two, spreading half out on a plate or sheet of wax paper and setting the other half aside. Beat the eggs well with the lemon juice in a wide shallow bowl or pie pan.
  3. Taking one floret at a time, dip it into the beaten egg, coating well on all sides. Let the excess egg drip back into the bowl. Dredge the florets all over with the matzoh meal mixture. When the matzoh meal mixture gets lumpy with bits of egg, discard and replace with the reserved fresh mixture. To prevent loose crumbs from falling off and burning in the hot oil, pat the coated florets firmly so the matzoh meal adheres. Then, if possible, place them on a rack and let stand for about 15 minutes to set the coating.
  4. Heat ½ inch of olive oil in a heavy 10- to 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until hot but not smoking. Add the florets, and sauté them in batches until golden brown on all sides. Drain on paper towels or brown paper bags.
  5. Salt and pepper the cauliflower generously, like French fries, and serve with the lemon wedges. They are best hot, though they are still delicious, if somewhat greasy, at room temperature.

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