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Fortunate misfortune

I will never be a great Indian cook.

I've been set up to fall short of that goal by being born into a family of great Indian cooks. (If I could, I would double underline the word great right there and surround it with a beatific halo of twinkling, sparkling lights, just to give you an approximation of my conviction to that belief.)

As a result of this fortunate misfortune, the Indian meals that come to being under my hands, in my own estimation at least, will never, ever measure up to the meals of my parents and grandparents and aunts and uncles.

Theirs are just so much better. They've absolutely ruined me for anyone else's Indian cooking, even my own.

I do try. The trouble is, even if I meticulously weigh and measure and take note of every single flick of the wrist and dash of spice and cooking time down to the millesecond, I cannot replicate the magic of the food that is served from my parents' kitchen.

I am respectably proficient in the recipes I consider essential to the recreation of childhood meals, and I might even be so bold to call myself good at cooking them. But honestly, if it came down to a bowlful of my channa masala (spiced chickpeas) or a spoonful of Mum's, I would most assuredly pick the latter.

Frustrated and hungry, I branched out on my own. My immediate and extended family is of a diverse enough background that a variety of Indian cuisines are often represented at our table. I took that thought and ran with it - seeking out recipes that had no particular tie to my family but had a general place in the geography of our heritage.

The practice has been a successful one. The dishes have been familiar enough to have an emotional resonance for me, which really, is such an essential part of the way we cook and eat, but yet their unfamiliarity saves them from comparison or prejudice.

I'm not giving up on those family recipes, my word no. But while I'm learning, it's a start.

I fry chopped bindis (okra) among onion and tomatoes, and can stir up a thick gravy for kofta (meatball) curry. I have served generous bowls of peppery Mulligatawny, puréed until velvety smooth (an utter departure from my family's recipe). Then there are recipes like this cauliflower, that isn't classically Indian at all, but retrains enough of that spirit that it feels comfortable to have around. It feels like something I've been eating for years.

When making dal, the ubiquitous stewed lentils that are found throughout India, the dish is usually finished by tempering - a process called tarka (that's the way we pronounce it, but it can also be spelled tadka). It is a last-minute seasoning of the lentils with roasted spices cooked in ghee (clarified butter) or oil (often mustard). Here the aromatic butter is poured over roasted cauliflower, for an unexpected vegetable.

The cauliflower is presented in thick slabs, like a coral specimen from the mysterious deep, pressed under glass with it's spindly-limbs artfully arranged just so. After roasting, even the fibrous stalk looses its tenacity as everything goes soft and sweet. Hot from the oven, the cauliflower gets bathed in butter thick with spice and succulent nuggets of onion. It's taste is so reassuringly that of home to me that I get woozy with nostalgia just thinking about it.

And see in the photographs where the sauce collects and pools? I'll let you know now that you'll want to drag your cauliflower through those collected juices so that every crenulated tip is filled with the piquant liquor.

One swipe, and you'll thank me. Scratch that, no thanks necessary. Just be sure to save me a piece.

Roasted Cauliflower with Cumin and Coriander Butter
The spice blend is called garam masala, from the Hindi words "warm" and "spice"; with masala suggesting a combination of spices rather than a singular. It is without a standard recipe, with each household seemingly with its own version, but the basic components of coriander, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom, along with chilies are fairly universal.

1 medium cauliflower, leaves removed and cut into 3/4-inch vertical slices
neutral oil for drizzling
salt and freshly-ground black pepper
1-2 dried red chilies, stemmed and broken in two
4 black peppercorns
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
2 cloves
1-inch piece of cinnamon stick
1/4 teaspoon cardamom seeds
2 tablespoons clarified butter (ghee)
1/2 cup finely diced onion
1/8 teaspoon ground turmeric

Preheat an oven to 450°F (230°C), with rack on the lower third.

Drizzle a rimmed baking sheet, lightly with oil. Lay out the cauliflower on the tray and season both sides well with salt and pepper. Roast, turning once, until tender and golden, around 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a small skillet over medium high heat, dry roast the coriander seeds, cumin seeds, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, cardamom and chili until fragrant, tossing or stirring often. They might darken, but you do not want to see smoke or for the spices to catch. Watch them closely. Remove the spices to a spice grinder and allow to cool. Once warm but not hot, process the spices to a fine grind.

In the same skillet, warm the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring often, until translucent and sweet but without colour. Add some of the spice mix (see note below) and turmeric stirring them thoroughly into the butter. Continue to cook the onions and spices for another minute.

When the cauliflower is finished roasting, spoon the butter and onion mixture over. Serve immediately.

Serves 4.

• If you prefer, the cauliflower can be cut into florets and then tossed through the butter. Adjust the cooking time accordingly.
• Use as much or as little of the spice blend as suits your taste, a teaspoon or so would be a good starting point. The onion mixture should be well-spiced and pungent, to season the mild vegetable. Any leftover spices can be stored in a sealed container for a week or so.
• If you have a favourite garam masala recipe of your own, feel free to use it here.

Reader Comments (29)

Wow, this sounds so completely delicious and right up my alley. Bookmarked! Thank you. :)

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLuisa

Molly introduced me to roasted Cauliflower - I haven't been the same since. I didn't think it could be improved upon but then you go and bath it in spiced butter - you are a genius.

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAshley

I stumbled upon your lovely, lovely blog several days ago and am thoroughly enjoying this new find! As with the commenter above, I was first introduced to the wonder of caramelised cauliflower care of Molly Wizenberg's recipe in A Homemade Life...thank you for what sounds like a delicious variation! (And, please do try Molly's spin, if you haven't already - her salsa verde pairs beautifully with it.)

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRaquelita

I am grateful to have my friend Bina on speed dial when I cook Indian which is at least once or twice a week and even then I can't get it "exactly" as good as she does. I know part of it is associated to the memories of meals and dished we have prepared together but still....

This cauliflower recipe is on the menu for this week already! Thanks!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterTartelette

you've got me craving indian food for lunch!

my family is lebanese and whenever i cook anything it never tastes like my mom does. i still try though!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermichaela

Beautiful pictures! Looks like a delicious recipe. I recently picked up an ounce of garam masala on a whim and now i have something to use it in

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWhitney

I'm a great dipper so you can be certain I'll sop up those juices with the cauliflower!
Wonderful recipe!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterBarbara

wow, these would be totally new flavors to me, which makes this recipe extremely intriguing!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterSprouted Kitchen

You're obviously a great Indian fusion cook, though! I love roasted cauliflower but I usually eat it with Italian flavours. This looks like such a yummy version.

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterHilary

Wow, that sounds delicious - such a fragrant and tasty way to cook cauliflower. My parents make fab cauliflower bhajis so I imagine this would work just as well, with the spices a great way to liven up the cauliflower. Yum, straight to the top of my to-make list!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNora

I have had the deep-fried version of this before, prepared by an Indian family. And for me, I have tried making it too by roasting/baking cos' I don't like to deep-fry.

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertigerfish

I discovered the wonder that is roasted cauliflower about a year ago and I swear it changed my life! I absolutely love all of those flavors so I'm sure this would be stellar. You can cook Indian food for me any time!

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDana

I completely understand about food from your parents kitchen always tastes better. I love my dads fried chicken and anytime I make it it does not taste like my Dads...the funny thing is he is feels the same way about his chicken because he says it does not taste like his moms. I guess no matter what we do our cooking never taste just like our parents:)

November 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNutmeg Nanny

I've always had rather unnatural feelings for cauliflower... I am going to make this TONIGHT!

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKoek!

This splendid recipe has ignited in me a new craving for roasted cauliflower. You clearly are throwing aside the typical standards of a "great Indian cook" and paving your own way. Very admirable, my dear. Keep going!

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Beautiful! Delicious! It's all relative--I think your Indian cooking would certainly blow mine out of the water.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterThe Leftoverist

It's always my pleasure, Luisa!

Ashley it was Stephanie of Grub Report that started me on roasted cauliflower, but Molly's whole-roasted one with the mustard vinaigrette knocked my socks off. It's fantastic. Thanks so much for the kindness (as always).

Raquelita, thank so much for the compliment and for the visit. Molly's recipes are classics in our house, and so I will heartily agree with your recommendations.

Tartelette, you're most welcome! If I'm in need of complete comfort, I will admit I have my parents on the line and basically beg for them to cook for me. I trade in kind though, and make sure to have something baked ready and waiting for them. Everybody wins.

Glad that you still try, michaela! I swear, mothers must have some secret trick that they withhold from their daughters.

Please let me know how you like it, Whitney! A lot will depend on the specific flavours of your garam masala's blend, but most have similar profiles.

Barbara, you're very welcome. I'm a dipper too.

Sprouted Kitchen, so glad to be able to introduce you to a different way to eat cauliflower, especially as you've shared so many delicious recipes with all of us!

Aw, thanks Hilary. What do you do with your cauliflower?

Nora, you've got me hungry. Bhajis are a weakness.

tigerfish, were they battered like pakora? Sounds delicious.

Dana, I'd love to, my friend.

Nutmeg Nanny, I guess it is just the way things go, isn't it. It is nice to have company in that sentiment, thanks!

Koek! "unnatural feelings for cauliflower" wins for comment of the day.

Jennifer, I follow the traditional path most often, I will admit. But those are the dishes I hold up to my parents' standard (they don't, it's only my neuroses). This one is so far flung from those that I felt confident to share. Thanks so much for the encouragement.

The Leftoverist, you're too kind.

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertara

I am now craving for Indian food! I hope I can make some this weekend! Thanks for the post!

I enjoy your blog. Thanks! I have an already prepared spice mix 'garam masala' that I bought at a spice specialty store. Can I use this for this recipe?

November 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

This looks marvelous. I have two heads of cauliflower sitting in the fridge---they may have a rosy future...

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMama JJ

This looks to be an amazing way to cook with cauliflower, Thanks for sharing!

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKarine

While you have me craving your mom’s home cooking (does she do house calls?), you sure seem like you know what you are doing! Mmm…

November 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterfresh365

I've got some cauliflower in my garden to use right now! Thanks!

farmhouse dining room tables, you're very welcome. I hope that this satiates your craving.

Anonymous, that would be absolutely fine - it is really more of a method than an exact recipe. I've added a note to the post.

Mama JJ, fingers crossed that you enjoy the recipe.

Karine, you're truly welcome. It is a quick and interesting side dish, and cut small it can be a great snack.

fresh365, thanks so much. I feel inclined to say that my lovely family showered me with compliments on my cooking after I wrote this, but still I cannot compare to my folks' cooking skills. And yes, lucky me, they do housecalls.

theappetiteoflife, enjoy!

November 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commentertara

I know how you feel... I had to stop making Italian food for a little while because I could never achieve my mom's tomato sauce. Now I cook Italian, but very differently from the way they do at home.

November 10, 2009 | Unregistered Commenteremiglia

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