Pub Night: Cauliflower Poppers with Romesco Sauce

Anything can taste sinfully wicked if it is breaded and deep fried, even a vegetable as virginal and pure as immaculately pale cauliflower florets. The thing is, I don’t deep fry. You might already know this about me, but the act of deep frying both terrifies and fascinates me, and I can count the number of times that I’ve deep fried on two hands.  Specifically, two hands that are missing a digit on each.

I just don’t feel that it’s necessary to deep fat fry in most circumstances,when you can achieve an equally good –and sometimes better– version at home through food that is baked or broiled.  Also worthy of note, how many of us actually have a deep fat fryer at home? Do you?  My parents had a deep fryer when I was growing up, and I think it was used on a semi-annual basis, so maybe that’s where part of my antipathy comes from. The deep fryer would be hauled out of hiding, filled with oil that could rarely be reused (either because of the flavor of what was cooked or because it would go stale rapidly after the first use), and then there was the fiasco of cleaning the beast. Deep fryers for home use have improved significantly over time (and I am almost enamored with an “easy clean” option that I saw by T-fal), but after a brief and informal survey of my friends I found that only two (2) people actually had one.  That’s rather stark.   I don’t see the point in posting recipes that most people can’t make at home, and because I prefer to bake rather than fry whenever possible, I bring you our newest Pub Night delight:  cauliflower with a seasoned breading that is baked and served with a lusciously pungent, bright, sweet and garlicky Romesco sauce.

Vegetable haters around the world, unite!  You’ve been waiting for this post, and you will never turn your nose up at cauliflower again.

Cauliflower Poppers with Romesco Sauce

Serves 4-6 as an appetizer, or 8 as a small cocktail snack

Romesco Sauce

  • 2-3 large field tomatoes (~1.25 lb)
  • 1 bulb garlic
  • 1/4 cup almonds
  • 1/4 cup hazelnuts
  • 1 dried ancho chili *
  • 1 slice stale bread **
  • 4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
  • 2 tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt

* If you have a lightly smoked dried ancho chili it adds an exciting and tantalizing flavor to the dip, but a regular dried ancho chili is more traditional and just as good.

** A slice of white ‘peasant bread’ is traditional, but sandwich bread is fine. It’s rare for us to have white sliced loaf bread in the house, but thankfully the bread is more for texture than taste, so a slice of whole wheat is just fine.  If your bread is fresh and not stale, either lightly toast it or leave a slice sitting (uncovered) on the counter for the better part of a day.

Cauliflower Poppers

  • 1 large head of cauliflower (3-4 lb)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 2 cups panko bread crumbs*
  • 1/4 cup dry grated parmesan cheese
  • 1.5 tsp garlic powder **
  • 1 tsp oregano
  • salt and pepper to taste

* Panko refers to a Japanese bread crumb that is lighter, crispier, and coarser than regular bread crumbs.  Panko is appealing because although it does not always have the same coverage as bread crumbs (for example, baked mozzarella sticks using panko was a cataclysmic failure) the texture is lighter and deliciously crispy.

** Please use garlic powder so that you can control the salt content.  If all that you have is granulated garlic salt, use it but be mindful of how much extra salt that adds to the dish and scale back significantly on salting the flour and egg.

Lets start with the Romesco sauce.  Romesco is a rich tasting garlicky sauce/dip from Spain.  It is a great accompaniment to seafood and poultry, but I like to use it as a vegan dip for fresh vegetables (fennel must be on that platter), smeared on crostini with a sprinkle of parsley, or used as a dip for milder foods.  The ingredients are simple and rustic, but the flavor of this dip is complex and absolutely addictive.  I’m telling you, when it comes to simple foods that you just can’t stop eating, the Spaniards set the bar pretty high.

Preheat your oven to 350ºF with the racks in the center.

Core the tomatoes using a fairly shallow conical cut.  Slice just enough off of the top of the garlic so that the cloves are exposed, just like if you were going to wrap and roast the whole head.  Set the snipped tops of the garlic bulb aside.

On a baking sheet, drizzle 2 tablespoons of oil over the tomatoes and garlic bulb, making sure that you smear some on the sheet where they will be sitting and across the skin of each.  Lightly salt the tomatoes.

Place the baking sheet in the oven to roast for about one (1) hour, or until the garlic cloves are a deep golden color and the tomato skin is completely blistered and bursting.  Set these aside until they are cool enough to handle.

While the tomatoes roast, heat a small skillet over moderate heat and add the nuts and chili.  Shaking the pan occasionally, toast the nuts until they’re browned and dark in spots, which should take about 3-5 minutes.  As soon as the nuts are toasted, remove them to cool in a separate bowl.  You might need to continue toasting the chili for another minute or two until it has a puffy blistered look and is sweetly fragrant.

Put the chili in a shallow bowl and cover it with hot water.  Let the chili soak for about 30 minutes until it is rehydrated.

Ease the blistered skin off of the tomatoes and gently squish them over the bowl of a food processor (to catch the juices) before adding the fruit and any accumulated liquids.  Squeezing gently from the bottom of each clove, ease the roasted garlic out of the papery skin and add all of the roasted cloves to the bowl.

Remove the stem and seeds from the chili and then tear it into several manageable pieces.  Tear the bread into chunks as well and add both to the food processor.

Finally, take the reserved “top” of the garlic bulb and remove each of the sliced clove tops from their paper.  Being conscious of the fact that fresh garlic is awfully pungent, if you were a bit cavalier with your knife and cut off more than the top 1/4″ of the bulb, only add in a maximum of one (1) teaspoon full of garlic segments.

Puree the mixture until it is smooth.

Add the olive oil, vinegar, salt and toasted nuts.  Like hummus, the end texture of Romesco sauce is a matter of taste.  Some people like it super smooth, others want it a bit chunky where you can see the nuts.  I like it to be fairly smooth and consistent, but with small bits of nut speckling and adding a gentle coarseness to the mixture.  Pulse the mixture in your food processor until you have a texture that you like.

Taste the sauce and adjust the seasoning (salt and pepper) as you see fit.  Chill the Romesco until you’re ready to serve the poppers.

Now then, onto the cauliflower poppers!

Increase the temperature of your oven to 425ºF with the racks still in the center position.

Core the cauliflower and discard the stem.  Ease the florets apart into small bite sized pieces, which are about 1/3 to 1/2 the size of what you would see on a vegetable platter.

Prepare two shallow and one medium sized bowls.  In the first shallow bowl add the flour and season it with salt and pepper.

In the second shallow bowl, whisk the eggs with the milk and Dijon mustard.

In the third bowl mix together the panko bread crumbs with oregano, parmesan and garlic powder.  Season lightly with salt and pepper.

To bread the cauliflower florets, first roll them around in the flour until they are coated.  Dip the floured floret (I just love saying that) into the egg mixture.  Shake off any excess egg and then roll it in the crumb mixture, pressing gently to ensure that the breading adheres.

Place the breaded florets on 1-2 large baking sheets lined with parchment paper.

Bake the cauliflower poppers for 20-25 minutes, until the breading is crispy and lightly browned.  After the first ten minutes you’ll want to rotate the pans (if you used two) and turn each floret over so that they will cook evenly and brown on more than one side.

Serve the cauliflower florets on a large platter with the Romesco sauce on the side for dipping.

I love the buttery, nutty taste of roasted cauliflower, but when you bread and season it cauliflower takes on a whole new dimension.  Crispy on the outside with a juicy and dense interior, these golden nuggets would be a fabulous snack just on their own.

The Romesco, however, is what takes this over the top and into the realm of Snacks I Would Eat For Dinner.  Garlicky and rich without being overwhelming, bright but not offensively acidic, the Romesco is the perfect pairing to make these morsels utterly addictive.

When I made this a few days ago, Mike and I went through the entire platter on our own. Why wouldn’t we, though? This isn’t exactly a fatty and caloric snack, and the richness of the Romesco comes through heart healthy toasted nuts that are chock full of omega 3 and oils that make your hair glossy and skin look dewy and fresh.  If it wasn’t for the fact that dried ancho peppers are hard to come by in our neck of the woods (this one was carefully plucked from a care package sent from San Antonio that I jealously guard and mete out in a most miserly way), this is one of the snacks that we’d have in weekly rotation.

Cauliflower is more than just filler on a veggie tray, and you owe it to yourself to let it shine as the understated but flavor-rich vegetable that it can be. For the next pub night that you have at your house, lighten up a bit and give these poppers and dip a whirl.  You won’t be sorry.

Now then, if only I could figure out how to make great breaded mushroom caps with half the fat, my pub nights would be complete…..

  • Kulsum @ JourneyKitchen

    I have lately started appreciating cauliflower a lot more. I don’t pick for other vegetables and sideline the cauliflower anymore in my indian mixed vegetable dishes. I think this should fit rightly, to bring the veg in forefront. And Romesco sauce? Looks divine.

    But since I don’t have any care package coming any time soon hehe, what to do about ancho chilly?

  • Anne

    I’m sitting here remembering I have home grown tomatoes on my kitchen counter. And as I kept reading all I could think was….’hey, my husband’s favorite veg is cauliflower…’

    So, this goes on the gonna make this SOON list. yay!

  • machinne

    nice! you got me too!

  • Tina

    Kulsum – Ancho chili has a moderate heat but a remarkably sweet and smoky flavor. If you can find something similar in your neck of the woods, give it a shot!

    Anne – I have never met someone who’s favorite vegetable is cauliflower. Ever. That’s….pretty awesome, and the kind of thing where I’d probably coax him into a glass room for curious observation. If you do try these, please let us know what you think!

    • Anne

      Tina, trust me, he is a man of simple tastes, heh. His idea of best dinner ever? Baked scallops, strip steak, baked potato and cauliflower. With any kind (even Jell-o) cheesecake for dessert and raspberry pie filling on top. Throw in a green salad and/or good bread? He’d think I wanted something REALLY huge, and would become suspicious. After he ate, of course.

      I have to wait till the weekend, but we are so gonna try this. I think even my 9 and 15 yr-old daughters might like some or all of it.

  • lo

    Ha! A new favorite way for me to use Romesco sauce 🙂
    LURVE cauliflower. And the nuts in the breading are positively brilliant.

    We actually do have a deep fryer. It’s a complicated little beauty that rotates your food in and out of the hot oil to promote even cooking and keep things from getting greasy. It works wonderfully… though it requires enough work in the set-up/clean-up that we probably only use it a few times a year. The occasions when we haul it out are positively glorious, though.

  • margarita

    Kensinton Market has anchos from Mexico. Still a long way away!
    Lovely recipe, Tina!!

  • Kevin (Closet Cooking)

    What a tasty and healthy looking snack!

  • Tina

    Margarita – I live in the ‘burbs, but the breadth of ingredients in Kensington market (ooh, and the cheese stores) WILL bring me down occasionally on a weekend morning! Well, that and the double-stop at St.Lawrence market, because if you’re going to pay that much for parking…..

    Kevin – thanks bud!

  • Elizabeth

    Well this sounds crazy delicious , but would it be ok to use a blender if I don’t have a food processor?