Did you miss me? In case you noticed (or didn’t), I skipped writing my column last time. I was busy conducting a very important scientific experiment and couldn’t take the time to pen one.
You may wonder what sort of scientific research I could possibly have been devoting my time to. You might assume it involved cooking, as I can be moved from my usual inertia only by a good recipe or the need to eat.
But this time, you would be wrong.
As a public service, and because no one else seemed to be studying it, I decided to put on my lab coat and test a hypothesis that has very little to do with food, at least, not directly. It’s one I have heard folks assert as fact many times over the years, but when I did my due diligence by googling it (how did I ever live before Google?), I could find no evidence of any research-backed proof.
I simply could not let this gap in the scientific literature remain. I threw myself into the breach. What’s more, I selflessly volunteered myself as the test subject.
What axiom was I trying to prove (or disprove, as the case may be)? It’s simple but profound: “There’s no such thing as too much fun.”
I sat down in early July to ponder it, and concluded that the best way to structure my experiment was to come up with everything great that I could cram into a single season, do it and then analyze whether I had had too much fun.
My original thought was a staycation, as there are always plenty of fun things to do here in Napa. But then other opportunities arose. First one friend, then another, came up with ideas for get-togethers around the country.
In the interest of science, I couldn’t say no.
In the past six weeks, I spent a week house-sitting in San Francisco, followed by a trip to the East Coast, followed by another stop in Chicago.
Highlights of the first stop on my “all fun, all the time” tour included a wine-themed street festival in S.F., delicious meals with friends, plus visits to several classic Old School watering holes and a hip new jazz bar.
After a brief visit home to water the plants and pack, I was off to the second location on my summer itinerary, Ocean City, Maryland with my group of D.C.-area friends.
We spent the first night at the beach cracking Old Bay-coated steamed blue crabs (IMHO the only kind worth eating) at the VFW in Ocean View, Delaware. Then it was on to four more days of eatfest, beachfest, pokerfest and every other kind of fest we could squeeze in, with some of my oldest, dearest friends.
Man, this science stuff is hard work! It’s a good thing I am so dedicated. I had to fit in scarfing down crab cakes and honest-to-god Philly cheesesteaks, consuming at least six different flavors of super-rich ice cream, getting tossed around by the waves, and relaxing in a beach chair under the shade of an umbrella while holding my own against some of the fiercest Scrabble competitors I know.
So much fun! But in the interest of science, I had to cram in even more.
After shaking the sand out of my shoes, I moved on to Chicago for a reunion with my delightful travel companions from the Cuba trip. Somehow, we found time for a boat tour of Chicago architecture, four fabulous restaurant meals, plus pastries in one of Rick Bayless’ restaurants while he filmed his TV show about 15 feet from us, and a baseball game at Wrigley Field with attendant Polish dogs and beer.
I’ve been home for a few days now, but the experiment isn’t over. Once I finish this column, I’m heading to L.A. to meet up with two old friends for some additional good times, then flying to Santa Fe to visit my college roommate, for what promises to be a fabulous foodie tour of her town’s latest hot spots.
I’ll be wrapping up the experiment when I get back, so I haven’t completed my analysis yet. But the preliminary data are very promising. I’ll let you know for sure in a couple weeks, but early results indicate a real scientific breakthrough.
Is there such a thing as too much fun? The data say no. No matter how many good times I have, the pool of available fun remains infinite.
So go enjoy yourself this fall. I know I plan to, now that I am confident there’s no chance of running out.
Cauliflower Cake a la Ottolenghi
Yotam Ottolenghi, “Plenty More”
My friend Leigh, a great and adventurous cook, invited me to dinner last week and served a delicious savory cauliflower cake as the main course. Foolishly, I forgot to ask for the recipe, even though I had every intention of replicating it as soon as I could.
Rather than bothering her, I hunted online and came across this version by the great Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi from his new cookbook “Plenty More.” I’m not sure if it is the one she used, though it is very similar. And scrumptious.
Usually, I can’t help tweaking recipes before I give them to you. But in this case, I haven’t found a way to improve it. It works perfectly, and this may be the best use of cauliflower I have ever tasted.
Why not add a little fun to your fall by hosting a brunch? (And, of course, feel free to invite me.) This is a perfect dish to serve, and equally great as a meatless but totally satisfying supper.
1 Tbsp. melted unsalted butter, for brushing
1 Tbsp. white sesame seeds
1 tsp. nigella seeds
1 small cauliflower, broken into 1-1/2 inch florets
1 medium red onion, peeled
5 Tbsp. olive oil
1/2 tsp. finely chopped rosemary
7 large eggs
1/2 cup basil leaves, chopped
1 cup flour, sifted
1-1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/3 tsp. ground turmeric
5 oz. coarsely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt and black pepper
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Prepare the pan by lining a 9 1/2-inch/24-cm springform cake pan with parchment paper. Brush the sides with melted butter, then mix together the sesame and nigella seeds and toss them around the inside of the pan so that they stick to the buttered sides.
Steam the cauliflower florets or simmer them in a saucepan covered with water to which you have added 1 teaspoon salt. Cook them until they are quite soft (about 15 minutes). Drain and set aside in a colander to dry.
Cut 3 to 4 round slices, each 1/4 inch thick, off one end of the onion and reserve. Chop the rest of the onion and place it in a small pan with the oil and rosemary. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat, stirring from time to time, until soft and translucent. Remove from the heat and set aside to cool.
When it is cool, transfer the onion and oil to a large bowl. Add the eggs and basil, whisk well, and then add the flour, baking powder, turmeric, Parmesan, 1 teaspoon salt and about 1/2 teaspoon or more pepper. Whisk until everything is blended, then gently stir in the cauliflower.
Pat the mixture into the prepared pan, spreading it evenly. Separate the reserved onion into rings and arrange them on top in an attractive pattern, pressing them into the mixture slightly.
Place in the center of the oven and bake for 45 minutes, until golden brown and set; a knife inserted into the center of the cake should come out clean. Remove from the oven and let sit for at least 20 minutes before serving.
This is best served warm (not hot) or at room temperature.