To be born a cauliflower is an elegant thing in itself—it’s like what can possibly go wrong with a Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie offspring? It will have the looks, the body, and of course the bite to go with it.
Having said that, the cauliflower’s natural beauty is perhaps one thing that gets in the way while trying to cook it. Mutilating it like the South Indians do in their poduthuvals is close to criminal, dousing it with coconut, chilli and garlic gravy like the Maharashtrians do is sacrilege. I for one always have issues about ‘deflowering’ this thing of beauty, rendering it leafless, almost bald. With such reservations, transforming it into an out-of-world experience is a daunting task. As Aamir Khan said in Dil Chahta hai, “Perfection ko kaun improve kar sakta hai?” (how can you improve perfection?)
I must say the north Indians have cracked this. Like they have totally figured out that only-ginger-no-garlic is the way to go for this flower. Or that less is more (so roasted and crushed jeera and a whole chilli are perhaps the only things that pass muster). They have also figured out the slow cooking is the only way to get your gobi right, even if takes close to an hour. And that there is a colour palette while frying onions that moves from white to pink to green to brown and that green is the shade we want. As someone with limited patience, exaggerated by the inability to stand over a flame and watch something cook for more than five minutes, I am definitely not the candidate.
I have had the most simple, yet most amazing aloo-gobis at my childhood friend Tina’s house, where her mother, Mrs Sahni, served them up for us with hot rotis wrapped in a towel, and released just before they reached your plate.
Recently, at a dinner table conversation with a Punjab-da-puttar, my interest in this species of vegetable was rekindled all over again. It’s been a while since I ate a good aloo-gobi and Tina has moved to San Francisco and evolved into a shockingly bad cook, while her mother is nestled somewhere in Greater Kailash II in Delhi. So right now, Navraj Lehl is my only hope and I do hope he reads this and invites me for a Punjabi meal soon.
I attempted doing it the Punjabi way, but my patience wore out, so now, I do the occasional cauliflower soup (which I am good at), throw it into a vegetable stew (it works) or make a quickie pulao with chunky pieces of it in a tomato and ginger-garlic gravy. But I still yearn for a good gobi-matter or aloo-gobi or just plain gobi-ki-sabzi.
And then, one fine day, I learnt this recipe from my buddy Deepa (an amazing cook and equally fun to be with) in which she just buttered a whole cauliflower, dunked it into an oven and garnished it with pepper. It was the most divine one-pot meal I had ever eaten.
Baked cauliflower with thyme and pepper
1 medium sized cauliflower
1.Wash and clean cauliflower if necessary and wipe dry (avoid buying the slightly mottled ones)
2. Take a dollop of butter (as much as you are permitted to have or dare to) and slater it all over the cauliflower, making sure you smear enough in the grooves and hidden parts.
3. Now sprinkle some thyme and pepper (just pepper will also do if you don’t particularly fancy thyme) all over (don’t forget the parts between the florets) and dunk it into a microwave for 4-6 minutes (850W) or bake in a regular oven for 20 min at 180 degrees.
4. Mop up the excess butter in the dish with a baguette, and dig into the whole cauliflower with a fork and knife. Or just tear it to shreds if you give two hoots about elegance.