Monday, April 23, 2018

in praise of pickled jalapenos

I am sorry for a longer than intended absence. Transitions are odd things and while I have been cooking plenty, writing has been a struggle. Thanks for checking back in and reading. Last weekend I tried a new dish that was so good I forced myself back to the keyboard to share it with you.

I think my love for pickled jalapenos started with a pizza. There is a restaurant in downtown Claremont, CA called Union on Yale. When we lived in SoCal it was our go-to for special celebration dinners and date nights. The setting is like out of a Nancy Meyer film set: a large outdoor eating space with patio tables surrounding a regulation sized bocce ball court. Strands of outdoor lights stretch from an old oak tree to the the main restaurant building, crisscrossing above diners heads and giving just the right early evening glow. There is a fire pit and the sounds of street musicians carry up the block. We sat outside year round. In the waning weeks of our time in California, it became a ritual Friday night supper, we knew we would miss it so much. In addition to amazing fried chicken and cheery seasonal cocktails, they serve wood fired pizzas. Our favorite is the spicy pickled pepper: tomato sauce, pickled cherry peppers, pepperoni, mozzarella, and prison garlic. The vinegar tang of the peppers is perfect against the salty crispy edges of pepperoni.

Although the pizza had a different kind of pepper on it (cherry), after that I started to include pickled jalapenos whenever given the option. On tacos and overstuffed baked potatoes are a personal favorite and I'd like to share a new recipe that pairs the pepper with roasted cauliflower (a constant favorite) and makes use of both the peppers themselves and the pickling liquid they're packed in.

One of the new behaviors of my life in Washington is checking out cookbooks from my local library (I also listen to a lot of classical music, but that's a story for another time). I confidently share that my town has a kick-ass library. Staffed with knowledgeable people, the new release section always surprises me with how good it is. I obtained a library card the first week we arrived. Our first landing spot was a 750 square foot rental house and most of our belongings (and all of my books), stayed packed and stacked in boxes that filled the second bedroom and unfinished basement. I missed the joy of leafing through a cookbook for inspiration. The library was a perfect solution. Even now that I have full access to my personal book collection, I have continued to check out a new cookbook every few weeks. I find that a cookbook on loan comes with it's own impetus to use it. Knowing that I have a "return by" date looming out there motivates me to try out recipes and include them in meal planning.

I recently checked out "Casa Marcela: Recipes and Food Stories of My Life in the Californias" by Marcela Valladolid (You may recognize her from FoodNetwork). Her book is filled with recipes and photos from life in a warmer climate. On my first flip through, I tagged about a dozen recipes with post-it notes. One friday night I made a jalapeno roasted chicken, which included stuffing slices of fresh jalapeno under the skin of a chicken and roasting it until crispy. In the heat of the oven, the jalapeno slices softened and basted the breast of the chicken in their juices, so the meat was infused with a smokey heat. Another night I made a kale salad coated with cilantro yogurt dressing. We wolfed it down.

One of the recipes I flagged from the start was "Roasted-Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinagrette." Unfortunately, we have long since eaten through the dozen jars of pickled jalapenos I canned this past fall, so I picked up a standard grocery store jar. The great thing about a recipe like this is it takes ingredients that I am likely to already have in my house and, with just a little more effort, elevates a weeknight go-to, like roasted cauliflower. The combination of sweet, char-edged cauliflower, heat of the peppers, salty parmesan and nutty pumpkin seeds is addicting. I polished off the platter by myself.

I've always kind-of side-eyed recipes for cauliflower steak. I somehow read it as pretentious- "you're just cutting up cauliflower!" But now I get it- it is actually an efficient way to prep it, saving the hassle of breaking the whole head into florets. One note: Marcela Valladolid's recipe calls for roasting the veggies on a pan lined with parchment paper. My experience is cooking on parchment paper steams veggies more than roasts them and prevents the gorgeous caramelized bits from forming. If your experience is otherwise, than by all means, please use it.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Pickled-Jalapeno Vinaigrette

1 large head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds)
5 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
salt and black pepper
2 tablespoons jalapeno pickling juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar
about 1/4 cup of pickled jalapeno slices (or however much you desire)
3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons roasted pumpkin seeds

1) Preheat the oven to 375. Prepare the cauliflower by removing any leaves and trimming the stem. Set the cauliflower right side up on the cutting board and cut into 1 inch wide slices, starting from the top center. As the cuts get closer to the edge of the cauliflower, the slices will start to break into florets. That's okay. You can roast the florets along with the "steak" slices.

2) Set the cut cauliflower slices on a large rimmed baking sheet. Tuck any extra florets around the edges. Take 2 of the 5 tablespoons of olive oil and brush both sides of the cauliflower steaks. Then sprinkle with salt and pepper.

3) Cook the cauliflower in the oven until it is golden brown and cooked through, about 40-50 minutes. Unlike when cooking only florets, there is no need to toss or flip the cauliflower while it roasts. When there is about 7 minutes of cooking time remaining, scatter the pumpkin seeds on a second baking sheet and slide into a separate rack of the oven. The pumpkin seeds can roast along with the cauliflower for the last few minutes of cooking time (about 5-7 minutes), but keep an eye on them as burnt seeds are no good.

4) In the meantime, in a small bowl, whisk together the jalapeno pickling juice, sherry vinegar, and remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Give it a quick taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

5) Remove the cauliflower from the oven and transfer to a large platter. Drizzle with the vinaigrette, and then scatter over grated parmesan, pumpkin seeds and jalapeno slices. Serve immediately.

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