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There are some restaurant dishes that show you how little you know by hitting you over the head with ingredients, techniques, and various cured meats you’ve never heard of. They give you no choice but to admit your ignorance, to accept what you will never understand and what you will never make yourself.
And then there are those that show you how little you know by giving you what you do know, only much better: the creamiest cacio e pepe, an impossibly good Caesar salad, a simple vegetable side whose name ("Garlic Broccoli") belittles it.
That these dishes seem almost within your grasp makes them all the more puzzling.
The "Cauliflower with Grapes and Almonds" from The Modern Bar Room in New York City is in that second group: composed only of ingredients I could name and identify, yet better than most salads I've made at home. It wasn't until I saw the recipe that I realized how skillfully its inventor had synced so many moving parts.
Unsurprisingly, there was more involved that just cauliflower, grapes, and almonds.
There was "roasted" cauliflower, made entirely on the stovetop. There was crumbled cheddar cheese. There were pickled grapes (soaked for 12 hours) and dehydrated grapes (poached in sugar syrup, then drained and cooked at a low heat for 4 hours). There were almonds (first frozen, then crumbled, then toasted). There was almond vinaigrette (made with 1 1/2 cups of almond oil) and cheddar cheese sauce (made by heating crème fraîche to 175° F on the stove, blending it with cheddar, cooling the mixture down in an ice bath, then whipping crème fraîche and folding it into the cheese mixture along with sour cream). There was micro-parsley.
There was enough to make me lose my breath (and have visions of my kitchen covered in cheese and oil).
I looked, with help from my fellow editors, to consolidate (and to make an instant-read thermometer, a stand mixer, and a sauté pan large enough to thoroughly cook an entire head's worth of cauliflower florets unnecessary):
- In place of dehydrated grapes, I used yellow raisins, and pickled them quickly, along with grapes, according to the the guidelines of this recipe.
- Instead of almond vinaigrette and cheese sauce, I combined the two, adding a bit of crème fraîche to a lemony vinaigrette.
- Rather than cook the cauliflower on the stove, I used the oven, adding crumbled cheddar in the last few minutes to give it time to melt and bubble; when I stirred the vegetables with the melted cheese as soon as the pans were out of the oven, I had a 5-minute faux cheese sauce.
- I skipped any almond preparation and went straight for pre-smoked nuts that I could chop coarsely without freezing or toasting.
And then I added some other elements I thought would taste good without adding a lot of work: shaved cauliflower for crunch, fresh grapes for pure sweetness, and grainy mustard, because my vinaigrette was missing something.
In the end, the salad turned out like one of Shakespeare's comedies (the resemblance is uncanny, really), where every character has two roles: The cauliflower is both roasted and raw; the grapes are both pickled and fresh; the cheddar cheese is both melted and crumbled; the lemon juice seasons the vegetables, the white wine vinegar adds sharpness to the pickle brine, and both come together in a dressing.
If the salad still seems daunting, here's where you can cut corners:
- Skip the pickling altogether; make the dressing extra sharp with an added boost of vinegar.
- Don't spend time shaving raw cauliflower. Roast it all!
- Don't melt any of the cheese with the cauliflower—just crumble all of it into the salad.
- Instead of making a separate vinaigrette, use the pickling liquid as your base, adding lemon juice and olive oil.
Looking to riff? Here are some ideas for experimentation:
- Instead of cauliflower, use carrots or broccoli.
- For a leafy version, use radicchio: half raw, half roasted.
- Instead of grapes and raisins, use fresh figs and dried figs (or only dried figs); in the summer, use fresh and dried cherries. Pickled grape tomatoes and sun-dried tomatoes would also be a nice substitute.
- To turn it into a full meal, serve it over rice or farro, with a soft-boiled egg on top.
- For the pickled raisins and grapes
- 2 cups (generous) halved green grapes (from about 1 pound of grapes), divided
- 1/2 cup golden raisins
- 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar, divided
- 1/4 cup honey
- 1 bay leaf
- 1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- For the salad and the dressing
- 2 heads cauliflower, divided
- 3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil
- Salt and black pepper, for seasoning
- 5 tablespoons lemon juice, divided
- 1 1/2 cups (generous) crumbled sharp white cheddar cheese, divided
- 2 teaspoons mustard (I used a mix: half grainy, half Dijon)
- 1/2 cup walnut oil (or substitute with olive oil)
- 1 teaspoon (heaping) crème fraîche, sour cream, or Greek yogurt
- 1/2 cup coarsely chopped smoked almonds (or toasted slivered almonds)