What, you’ve never had cauliflower cheese before? Why, it’s right up there on the American Heart Association’s recommended diet, above the kale and below the oat bran. Okay, well, maybe just the cauliflower is. I realize this dish may sound strange if you’ve never heard of it. The first time I saw it on a menu in the UK last fall, I thought a word was missing, perhaps “with” or “and.” I mean, you cannot make cheese out of cauliflower or vice-versa, or at least I hope not.* And then I tried it, bubbling and brown in a small ramekin aside my roast** at a tiny Inn in the middle of nowhere that looks like something you’d see in a Bridget Jones Diary (basically where I learned everything I knew about the UK before I got there, well, that and Morrissey songs) and I stopped talking. I stopped thinking. My heart may or may not have stopped beating for a moment, though I’m sure it was love, not fibrillations. How could it be anything but, when cauliflower florets are draped with a sharp cheddar cheese sauce spiked with mustard and a bit of cayenne and then baked in the oven until bronzed and, wait, what were we talking about again?
One of my secret food shames is that I don’t love spicy foods as much as would probably make me cool these days. I’ve got no Thai chile-eating bravado, no Sichuan peppercorn count to throw around, and I never even once in college went to one of those Buffalo wings places where they make you sign a waiver (such as the delightfully named, late Cluck U Chicken near Rutgers University) and lived to brag about it, the way others might boast about how much they bench press or how fast they run a mile (nope, nothing to swagger about there either). My ideal hot sauce can’t be found among my husband’s collection of Tapatio, Cholula and Sriracha, but in this Mild Sauce for Hot People, one of the few little orange bottles that I feel really understands my appreciation of heat in food, but not so much that it overwhelms everything. I accept that this makes me culinarily a wuss.
Not 10 seconds after I hit “publish” on Tuesday’s fall-toush salad, pretty much out of the clear blue sky, wherever it might be hiding, I simultaneously began craving carrot cake, feeling vaguely annoyed that we didn’t have any around (because I haven’t made it in six years, maybe?) and more pressingly for the breadth of this site, why I didn’t have what I’d consider a go-to recipe for the kind of hearty, craggy thud of a carrot cake loaf I want more of in my life. Sure, there’s a carrot cake cupcake/layer cake in the archives, but it’s a featherweight, for swirls of cream cheese frosting and birthday candle. I wanted breakfast/afternoon snack carrot cake, the kind that comes in thick slices and toasts well with salted butter. In my mind, they’re different. And my mind, as you can gather, ponders these things a lot.
This probably makes no sense. The classic Levantine fattoush salad that I’ve mercilessly punned upon is the epitome of summer: tomatoes, cucumbers, scallions, mint, parsley, garlic and lemon with pita chips that both do and do not soak up the dressing, in the best of ways. It’s bright, crunchy and the absolutely ideal thing to eat on a hot day. But at least on this coast, we’re done with beach days for a while. We’re done (or were supposed to be before today’s confusion) with open-toed shoes, permanently open windows, and going out without a jacket and not regretting it. The tomatoes are waning, the heavy orange vegetables and dark leafy greens are creeping in.
If you’re anything like me — someone who begins each workday with grand ambitious to be startlingly productive, but finds themselves at 4 p.m. most days aimlessly clicking random links shared on social media, trying not to nod off onto their keyboard and wondering if there’s maybe any chocolate anywhere? — you may have found yourself a few weeks ago on that day’s viral food content du jour, an enticing recipe for tater tot waffles.
I began this summer by expressing, in no uncertain terms, just how terrible New York City summers really are — sticky airlessness occasionally broken up by eerily refreshing droplets of cool water on your head that turn out to be filthy window a/c run-off, and you know, given that NYC lets people with absolutely no relevant skills install their own window a/c units, you might not want to walk underneath them at all, is all I’m saying. Right, I’ve digressed again. I think I hoped that if I aired my grievances about summer early and unflinchingly, I could get through the season without my least favorite of my writing tics, whining about the weather.
Given my druthers, a word I’ve been looking for an excuse to type in a sentence for at least eight years, I would never choose a salad with lettuce in it over one that’s mostly shaved or shredded raw vegetables. I mean, lettuce — the dewy, freshly-plucked-from-the-earth stuff that spends a couple months a year gracing local farmer’s markets — can be absolutely delicious, but nine times out of ten, the same word is used to refer to that packaged stuff that doesn’t taste like a whole lot. And can we talk for just a second about that prematurely rotten red leaf that no bag of mesclun is ever without? Clearly I have spent an unnatural amount of time thinking about this. But in a world filled with avocado cup salads, broccoli slaw, butternut squash, carrot salads with harissa, feta and mint or tahini and crisped chickpeas, chopped salads with lime, sunflower seeds and radishes, crushed peas with sesame dressing and fennel with blood oranges* I’ve found little reason to worship solely at the salad altar of baby field greens.