Cauliflowers don’t really get much love. People gush over broccoli soup (guilty) or butternut squash risotto (guilty) but no-one outside of fancy restaurants (where textures of cauliflower was briefly all the rage) really gives it much of a thought – they certainly wouldn’t put it in something like cauliflower risotto. In fact, mention caulifower and people tend to either think of bland, mushy and frankly unappealing florets of boiled cauliflower. If the plucky vegetable is lucky it maybe get’s smothered in cheese and children like me grudgingly eat this frankly sulphorous vegetable just to get cheesy, cheesy goodness. The even sadder truth, until recently I was one of those people.
As recently as 6 months ago, I went to a great restaurant in Clapham called Trinity (it’s wonderful but has the misfortune of being around the corner from the Dairy which is both better and better value). Trinity at the time had a dish on the menu which revolved around cauliflower. I remember eating it at the time and going “wow” – that’s cauliflower at it’s purest form and it’s great. It wasn’t a perfect dish, there were several elements on the plate where that same slightly funky and yet bland cauliflower flavour came through. However, there was a small amount of cauliflower risotto on the plate. That little bit was completely transporting. The kind of subtle, mellow risotto you dream every risotto will be – creamy and indulgent with a beautiful, clear flavour. The closest way I can describe it is that the flavour of that cauliflower risotto was like listening to a single soprano in an empty cathedral. A beautifully clear note reverberating in the stillness, without harmony or cacophony, pure and utterly enchanting.
Since then I’ve been on a bit of a cauliflower kick. I’ve tried roasted cauliflower, cream of cauliflower soup, dabbled a bit again with cauliflower cheese and of course cauliflower risotto. I won’t say I’m a total convert – in fact most of those things I tried I didn’t really like. I know people swear by roasted cauliflower and there are restaurants all round the world serving it to rave reviews (one in Canada serves a whole head of roasted cauliflower with a steak knife sticking out of it). I find that although roasting it intensifies the flavour of cauliflower, that’s the problem. I like the sweetness and nuttiness of cauliflower. I don’t like the sour, sulphorous background note that goes along with it. Roasting is better than boiling in water to minimise these flavours and I’ll do it sometimes. However, cooking in milk (as I do for the purée I find even better. In this cauliflower risotto recipe, I’ve finally worked out how to get it to sing.
In a similar manner to the butternut squash risotto I posted before, this cauliflower risotto is a plain risotto base mixed with a silky smooth cauliflower purée. Like all risottos, this cauliflower risotto is a perfect thing to serve to guests. You can make the entire risotto base (except for adding the parmesan and butter) in advance. You simply stop a couple of minutes before it’s fully cooked and reheat with a little more stock (or even water). For this cauliflower risotto I use a homemade vegetable stock but store bought is just fine. Try and avoid salty vegetable stock cubes though – the end result is often too salty. I find it’s actually better (and totally delicious) to make it with simply water. If you do make it with water, just amp up the seasoning in the purée.
Making the purée to mix into the cauliflower risotto is a bit like making the broccoli soup I shared a while back. The secret (if you can call it that) is to not overcook the cauliflower itself and to not add too much of the liquid when you blend – after that it’s just adjusting the seasoning and richness (with a little butter). Cooking the cauliflower in milk rather than water, I find gives a more flavourful and rounded taste. The purée makes an amazing soup if you thin it with a little vegetable stock or is great served with a meaty fish (like spiced monkfish). Adding it to the cauliflower risotto is the easiest thing in the world, simply stir it in just before you finish cooking.
My current favourite is to serve the cauliflower risotto with seared scallops, pan juices and crispy pancetta. It’s really delicious and only the scallops need to be cooked last minute. Even the pancetta can be done a few hours ahead by sandwiching it between two silicone baking mats (or greaseproof paper) with a weight on top and placing in a hot oven for 30 minutes. Just the same as making chicken skin crackling. However, it’s also great just on it’s own or with diced chorizo running through it. In fact, with little cubes of crispy chorizo it makes the best arancini I’ve ever had. They’re creamy, unctuous and so deliciously moreish. Just don’t blame me if they all get eaten!
To make the cauliflower purée
Ingredients: (makes enough for two cauliflower risottos for about 4 people – I just hate recipes with half a cauliflower in them – feel free to scale down or use the rest for soup)
- 1 whole cauliflower separated into florets – stem discarded
- 2 pints whole milk (most won’t be eaten- it’s just enough to cover the cauliflower)
- 1 knob of butter
- Salt and pepper
- Add the cauliflower to a large pan and cover with the milk. If it needs a bit more to cover top up with a little water.
- Simmer gently for about 15 minutes or until the cauliflower is cooked through but not soft or mushy. Do not overcook it or it will be quite unpleasant.
- Remove from the liquid with a slotted spoon and add to a blender. Add half a ladleful of milk and blend on high until completely smooth. Add the knob of butter and continue to blend. Season well with salt and pepper. Adjust the consistency with more milk if necessary – it depends on how large your cauliflower is. You want it not too thick but definitely not loose and soupy.
To make the risotto base for the cauliflower risotto (for four hungry people)
- 400g Arborio or carnaroli rice
- 2 leeks diced as finely as you can
- 2 celery sticks diced as finely as you can
- 150ml dry vermouth or white wine
- 2 litres of warm vegetable stock
- 30-50g grated parmesan
- 1 knob of butter
- The reserved cauliflower purée (room temperature or warm but not fridge cold ideally)
- In a heavy-bottomed pan over a medium heat add some olive oil and the diced leek and celery with a pinch of sea salt and sweat for a few minutes until they’ve softened but without colour.
- Add the risotto rice and cook for a further minute or two until the outside edges of the grains go translucent.
- Deglaze with the vermouth or white wine and cook stirring until it has all evaporated.
- Add the stock ladleful by ladleful letting each ladleful evaporate before adding the next one. Stir very vigorously whilst doing this. Continue this process until the grains are cooked through – you want a little bite but for them to not be dry or chalky. If you want to stop the cooking for a few days and finish just before your guests arrive, then cook until the rice is just undercooked and has a little bit of a chalky texture left. At this point you can refrigerate until needed. Then to finish simply add a ladleful of stock to a pan and add the risotto and cook as before stirring all the time.
- Once the rice is cooked, take off the heat. Stir in the cauliflower purée, the parmesan and butter. Serve the cauliflower risotto immediately.