Roasted whole cauliflower is having a moment. This dish has a very modest ingredient list, but is impressive to serve, and is increasingly becoming a star on the menus of influential chefs around the world. Most recently, the New York Times brought the recipe to home cooks; after its publication last week, the story was one of the most e-mailed on the major newspaper’s website.
But every famous dish starts somewhere, and this dish started more than 10 years ago with Israel’s quirky celebrity chef Eyal Shani. The dish has long been a star at Shani’s restaurant North Abraxas. Back in 2006, Shani and his wife Miri Hanoch, who shared a food column in Haaretz from 2005 to 2009, described their cauliflower experiments and offered readers recipes for cauliflower, three ways.
Since then, the cauliflower has come far. The whole roasted cauliflower’s rise dovetails with the growing trendiness in the United States of Israeli food in general. This dish in particular was brought over by Israeli-American chefs Alon Shaya, one of several prominent restaurateurs who have won acclaim for their modern Israeli cuisine. Shaya’s version of the cauliflower is a signature dish at his New Orleans restaurants and was listed among food website Food52’s top 10 recipes for 2013.
Meanwhile, it seems like every publication with a food section has published a whole roasted cauliflower recipe sometime within the past year. The dish has been picked up by major international food celebrities like Jamie Oliver, Giada De Laurentiis and most recently Rachael Ray, each with their own versions.
As with many dishes that reach widespread popularity, the origin of the whole cauliflower is starting to become obscured in some of its many variations. Popular magazine Vice recently referred to it as a “classic Middle Eastern dish,” while De Laurentiis called her cauliflower “Italian.”
But The New York Times recognizes that Shani is responsible for setting the dish on its road to fame. Haaretz spoke to Shani to learn the true back story - where the idea came from, and whether Shani had any idea he’d spark an international trend.
Shani has been one of the best-known faces in Israel’s culinary scene for years. He owns nine restaurants, seven of them in Israel; they include his flagship North Abraxas, where he pioneered the whole cauliflower technique, as well as five branches of his gourmet pita chain Miznon, which also has that dish. Three branches are in Tel Aviv, one is in Paris and the newest outlet is in Vienna. Nowadays Shani is probably best known for his antics as a judge on the reality cooking show Master Chef.
Shani acknowledges that he was not the original creator of the dish, but learned about it from his business partner Shahar Segal.
“The story of this dish began more than 10 years ago. I went to his house on a Friday night, and I asked what we’d be eating. He told me - open the oven, and I saw it in its full golden glory. I said to myself - good God, another week and I would’ve invented this dish. Now it’s his for keepsies.”
Shani admits he initially felt jealous.
“At that moment I was thinking that I couldn’t believe how I’d missed thinking up this ingenious dish. I asked Shahar where the idea had come from and he said, ‘It’s my mom’s dish,’” recalls Shani. “If I hadn’t seen this dish at Shahar’s, it would have been lost in its niche.”
The dish appears simple, but the secret to its success is in the precision of technique, says Shani.
“The recipe is ultimately very simple - you cook a good small- to medium-sized cauliflower; the smaller they are, the sweeter. Nowadays [at Shani’s restaurants] we work with a special variety of cauliflower that’s grown just for us, over entire hills in the Negev. You cook the cauliflower in salted water and then let it drain like cooked potatoes. You let all the steam dissipate, and then you cover it in olive oil and stick it in the oven,” he said.
The trick is in applying the oil to the cauliflower, he says. “We’d stick our hands in olive oil, remove the excess and then rub the cauliflower. Any other way and it doesn’t work,” he says.
Shani, known for waxing poetic when he talks about food, has a full philosophy underlying this roasted cauliflower as well.
Generally, cauliflowers are cut into pieces when cooked, he notes.
“All our lives we’ve been ripping apart a flower, and I realized I’m not willing to break [that flower] anymore,” he says.
The dish's large size invites sharing, in a vegetarian version of traditional communal meals based on meat.
“People don’t tend to be generous with their vegetables. With meat they are, and this is something primordial within us. The cauliflower engenders generosity,” he says.
The cauliflower’s form appeals to our instincts in other ways, too, he says.
“There’s something in people that very much likes taking apart the precise forms of nature. It’s the same with the cauliflower. When you break it apart with your hands, you experience a joy that doesn’t exist when you’re eating a meal with a knife and fork,” he says. “The cauliflower brings us back to the most primordial savagery but no animal has died for this.”
Shani says he couldn’t have realized how far the dish would go.
“I knew this was an ingenious dish for all the above reasons, not because of me,” he says. “It fell on me so I ran with it. But I didn’t know that it would spread throughout the world.”
Shani says that he’s created other dishes that became international trends as well - tomato sashimi and fish carpaccio are two examples, he says.
“I was the first in the world to dare say these things 25 years ago,” he says. He came up with the concept of fish carpaccio after being served a pile of raw fish at two Michelin-starred restaurants, he says. “We know that lots of things begin when you give them a name.”
Eyal Shani’s Whole Roasted Cauliflower
Renowned chefs around the world all have their own variations of Shani’s signature whole roasted cauliflower. Here’s the version popularized by the chef himself, as published in Haaretz 10 years ago.
1 whole medium-size, fresh, white cauliflower, florets tightly packed and covered in bright green leaves
3 tbsp. olive oil
Preheat the oven to 430 degrees Fahrenheit (220 degrees Celsius). Place the cauliflower in a metal pot and fill until 3/4 full with mineral water. Add about 10 grams of salt per liter of water. Cover with a lid, bring to a boil, lower to a moderate boil and cook for 10-15 minutes, depending on the size of the cauliflower. Drain.
Brush the cauliflower with olive oil and sprinkle with a little salt. Place in a baking dish, place the dish in the center of the oven, and bake until the top turns golden brown.
Serve to the table in the baking dish. The outside of the cauliflower should be crisp and the inside as soft as butter. Separate the florets with a spoon and serve.