I don’t know what is worse really; December’s over indulgences or January self flagellation? The debate is open. You can juice broccoli or bath yourself in Aloe Vera, the truth is we are still in the middle of winter, long nights and short days passing, cold lights and windy greys drifting. Don’t be too hard on yourself, don’t miss out on the peak season for small comfort treats.
Stews and soups are fun but I find satisfaction and healing in a good gratin. Anything “al forno” in fact, potatoes, pasta… Bring it on; but since we are trying to be good here, I have another idea to meet each other half way, the cream of vegetables, the blossom of all Brassicae, the flower of all cabbages.
When you buy a cauliflower, the chances are that it is most likely to be coming from Brittany, the leading region for its production in Europe, with nearly 20,000 hectares allocated for its production; that is bigger than the whole Dublin area. What can I say, we like our cauliflowers! Nearly 70% of its production is exported, and it is a corner stone of the Breton culinary culture. So why on Earth can’t I have a decent memory of it while growing up? Seriously, in a soup, maybe, boiled to hell and served with a malt vinaigrette and ham? With fish and a bit of butter? I think somehow, we have let our favourite vegetable down a bit.
It was years later, while working in one of Galway’s most genuine and avant-garde wine bar, that I not only found self confidence in cooking, it is also the place where I learnt an awful lot about taking veg the extra mile. “Long Walk” Wine Bar was in the late 90’s, the palace of Harriet Leander, Finnish born legend, self taught cook and one of the multitude colourful characters that the western “City Of Tribes” harbours. People came for the Fish soup, the warm salad with port, the country platter on the wide wooden counter, while sipping on a South African red or for a plate of Couscous on Sunday night, to the blue notes of a live Jazz trio. We worked mostly on a blackboard, no menus there and when it was gone, it was gone! There was also – and for the time we lived in – a lot of effort made on the vegetarian front. The era of stuffed red peppers was dying and I was relishing the daily challenge. Harriet showed me one of the recipes she loved making; Cauliflower and saffron gratin. She always assigned us to the dishes we enjoyed doing; the theory behind it was the secret ingredient to a great little success. “If you love cooking it, it will taste great”.
I loved making that simple gratin, and fifteen years later, I still do, especially this time of year. Of course, I have added my own little touches, like parmesan and a bread crumb finish, sometimes I serve it with grilled cubes of pancetta, sometimes with fresh leaves and a lemon/ olive oil dressing. Every time I wash and cook the snow white florets, I think of their fields between Morlaix and Roscoff, the first thing that welcomes you after a long sea journey; I also think about the great years I’ve spent in the west, where my cooking adventure really started, one day by Galway bay, and that lonely stone wine bar hanged over the river Corrib, finishing its course by the promenade the locals once named “Long Walk”.