battle 14–day 2–cauliflower

Even though I won cauliflower easily enough on my first try, I decided to do it again the next night so I could cook it myself. I don’t have to cook the veggies myself to win them, I just wanted to. So I did. The fortunate thing about having already won cauliflower was that when I fucked it up, and I did, of course, it didn’t matter because I already knew I liked it.

However, my girl Vegetarian Erin joined for dinner, so even though I didn’t WANT to fuck up for myself, I NEEDED to not fuck up if I was going to be feeding someone else.  I did a lot of research on cauliflower before trying to cook it and ultimately decided on a two-point goal for dinner that night: I thought I should try to conquer cauliflower mash since I’d been so afraid of/pissed about it at Christmas that one time, and it needed to be vegetarian since Vegetarian Erin is a vegetarian.

Finding a recipe for cauliflower mash was easy enough, but finding a recipe for vegetarian cauliflower anything  isn’t easy at all. It turns out that because cauliflower naturally has no taste, the world thinks you should add a tasty meat stock of some kind to any and every cauliflower dish, and in general I wouldn’t disagree, except for the part where I know even meat stock counts as eating meat to vegetarians. Actually, I wouldn’t know that except for this one time Erin, Amber, Owen and I were on a road trip and we stopped for lunch at this little cafe, which was slightly off the beaten path in The Middle of Fucking Nowhere, Virginia. This is what they had on the menu: meat and potatoes. Erin sighed. I beamed. Virginia seemed great to me! Our well-intentioned but very dim server listened to Erin’s questions about the menu with interest, but he was clearly confused. Erin, who had been suffering from a really bad cold our whole trip, asked in a sniffly, pitiful voice, “What do you have for vegetarians?” The look on his face indicated to us that he thought “vegetarian” was a medical condition, which could be catching and it was probably what was making her look so ill. We could see the wheels slowly turning and then aha! a lightbulb. He went to the kitchen to inquire and came back with a very, very short list of non-meat items: potatoes.

Erin sighed again. “I’ll just have the French onion soup.”

“You can’t have that!” shouted Mr. Well-Intentioned but Dim-Witted Server Guy.

We sat there stunned. Apparently the French onion soup was made with meat stock, and he for real thought her condition would be disturbed by meat. We had to get the fuck out of there. These were my people, my food kin, and even I was scared.

But it was a great learning experience. I learned that many, many, many things (like vegetables) are prepared with meat stock to give them flavor where they wouldn’t otherwise have any (like cauliflower). Thank you, meat. After a lot of digging, I located a cauliflower mash recipe with no meat stock ingredients. So, meatless cauliflower, check.

But for our main it was all meat and I wanted to try pan frying again since I’d had such success the night before with country fried steak, but this time I was going to see what kind of damage I could do to fried chicken. But not regular ole fried chicken, I was going to make chicken sandwiches ala Chick-fil-a. (Erin brought grilled tofu for her sandwich.)

Once I had our MNF menu sorted out, I began prep. And wow, I really enjoyed working with cauliflower. Despite its relatively boring appearance (and taste), it was a really interesting vegetable to get to know. I peeled it apart, layer by layer, cutting the tiny stalks and pulling off the florets until I had a tidy pile of pieces for steaming and mashing. I really relish my prep time in the kitchen—cleaning and cutting vegetables, munching on crackers and hummus, singing and dancing when no one is looking—and think this will be what motivates me to continue cooking after the project is over. It just makes me feel good.

Once the cauliflower was on the stove, I started the chicken. Prepping the chicken was soothing, too. And that’s about where all the goodness ended. At prep.

Frying a couple of cheap round steaks was a cakewalk; frying chicken is an art. My fried chicken was the driest, most tasteless, chewy, boring piece of crap I’ve ever eaten. When I told my friend Kathy the next day what I’d done she said, “Yeah, leave that to the experts.” Yes. Good advice.

Then I took the cauliflower, which I had been boiling, off the stove and carried it to the sink to drain it. I poured the cauliflower into the colander and looked around for somewhere to put the pot, which I would eventually put the cauliflower back in to mash up. So, pot in one hand, colander in the other. Empty sink right in front of me. Pot in the sink, obviously. Then I had the colander in my hand and…oh, what’s that over there? Who the fuck knows what distracted me, but I found the need to put the colander down and the only reasonable place to put it, I thought, was back in the sink, which was where I had just put the pot. And there it sat, drip, drip, dripping water right back into the pot I intended to use again. This would have been fine, of course, if I had noticed or if it had occurred to me what I had done, because then I could just pour out the water before I put the cauliflower in the pot, but that only happens to real cooks and people who pay attention to shit. Instead, when I was done being distracted by looking at myself in the mirror or whatever else was happening that was so much more important than my cauliflower, I dumped it all right back in that watery pot and mashed, mashed, mashed until I had a great big mess of wet cauliflower. Mmm yum.

Meanwhile, the béchamel I was making to go with the mash finished and because I still wasn’t sure what was happening with my wet cauliflower, I added the creamy sauce to the mash, which made it…wetter. Total. Failure.

Erin, David and I choked down our sandwiches and cauliflower and said mildly congratulatory things like, I can see where this would be good if….(insert the hundreds of other ways my meal might have been edible if only I for real knew how to cook). Erin’s tofu sandwich was a success, though. So. I still win.

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battle 14–day 1–cauliflower

I was pretty concerned about cauliflower week because it was another vegetable I remember disliking pretty vociferously as a child. That dislike grew to utter hatred until eventually I was offended by the mere thought of this colorless, tasteless, virtually nothingness vegetable even occupying the same breathing space as me. At Christmas one time with David’s family someone brought mashed cauliflower, but I thought was mashed potatoes (and we all know how I feel about healthy vegetables masquerading as potatoes), and I was so disappointed when I found out it was cauliflower that it practically ruined Christmas. I mean, really.

But as I tried to recall some of my other experiences with cauliflower as a child, I couldn’t really remember ever having had it. Maybe that one time at…nope, or at…nope. I couldn’t remember a single time I’ve ever eaten cauliflower. Even that time at Christmas David warned me ahead of time so I was just disappointed that it wasn’t mashed potatoes, but I never had to actually eat it. So why did I hate it so much? Then I had a brief flashback to my childhood and remembered a church lady teasing my dad about not liking cauliflower… !!!! So this is really my dad’s fault. It’s my dad who doesn’t like cauliflower. It was my dad who was so vocal about it all my life.

Ah, the sins of our fathers.

Actually, this little revelation gave me some relief, as if being released from my own hatred of cauliflower pre-battle meant I would probably win this one with no problem. I love when I can start the week with this kind of attitude, because it means I will for sure fuck something up.

Sunday afternoon of that week we were out in the yard talking with our friends Naysayer Jon and Supporter Melissa when Melissa mentioned she had some frozen vegetables that included cauliflower, which we could heat up for dinner that night if I came up with the main dish. In a flash of genius I said, “How about country fried steak?”

Not that I have any idea how to make country fried steak. I know we’ve talked before about how my inability to cook is not exclusive to vegetables—that it extends to all my favorite foods, including meat, which is so unfortunate for me—but I’ve largely, obviously, spent this whole project learning about how to cook only vegetables. This is totally valuable (and sort of the whole point of the project), except that I’m not a vegetarian, so knowing how to cook other things is kind of important, too. Country fried steak is right up there with chocolate cake as one of my most favorite foods in the world, so since Melissa was going to make the cauliflower, I thought this would be a good opportunity to take a break from learning about vegetables and give myself a little time learning to cook some meat. So, Battle 14—Day 1—Cauliflower, became Battle 14—Day 1—Cauliflower /Cooking Experience (not numbered)—Country Fried Steak.

The best, easiest, most straightforward recipe I found for country fried steak was Emeril’s on foodnetwork.com. I imagine back in yesteryear when country fried steak was invented, it was probably easy, straightforward and totally no-nonsense, so that’s why I went with this one. Also, despite some of my culinary successes of late (bacon beets), I have had a few massive failures (pumpkin cookies), so I approached country fried steak with no small amount of trepidation, thinking it would be best if I avoided nonsense.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 pound round steak, cut into 4 (4-ounce) pieces

(I deliberated at the grocery store for a long time about what cut of meat to buy: a big round steak to cut into four pieces or four smaller pieces….I went with four smaller pieces)

  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 3 cups plus 3 tablespoons milk
  • 1 1/2 cups plus 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour

Country Fried Steak

  • Heat the oil in a heavy 9-inch cast iron skillet, to 360 degrees F.
  • Using a meat mallet pound out the meat.

(Country fried steak is a really great meal to make if you’re pissed or anxious or if someone has just cut you off in traffic, because pounding meat is a remarkably cathartic exercise in releasing aggression. I highly recommend it. I wasn’t mad that day, but I totally filed that little bit of useful info for use at a later date when one of you assholes naysays my awesome project.)

  • Season the steak with salt and pepper.

(A better cook than me would have experimented with seasonings here, but I’m still me and am pretty sure I forgot to do this part.)

  • Combine the egg with 3 tablespoons of the milk.
  • Put 1 1/2 cups of the flour in a shallow pan and season with salt and pepper.
  • Dredge the steaks in the flour, coating each piece evenly and tapping off any excess.

(I smirked at the use of the word ‘dredge’ here.)

  • Drip the steak in the egg wash, coating it completely and letting the excess drip off.
  • Dredge again in the flour, shaking off any excess.

(I smirked again here. I’m just saying, I don’t think people of yesteryear would have called the batter process “dredging.” So I did think this part of the recipe was a little nonsensical, but that’s fine, Emeril, you have your own restaurant and a toothpaste commercial and I have a blog detailing my ignorance with excruciating specificity, so I say you can call it whatever the shit you want. Dredge away.)

  • Fry the steaks in the hot oil, until golden brown on each side, about 3 minutes.
  • Remove and drain on paper towels.
  • Season with salt and pepper.

(Oh look…another opportunity for me to forget to season the meat.)

Gravy

  • Carefully pour off the oil, leaving behind about 1/4 cup of the oil along with the brown bits.
  • Over medium heat, add the remaining 3 tablespoons flour and cook for 3 to 4 minutes, whisking constantly.
  • Add the remaining 3 cups milk, 1/2 cup at a time, whisking constantly.
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low.
  • Season with salt and plenty of pepper. (I remembered the salt and pepper here! Yay me!)
  • Cook for 8 to 10 minutes, whisking constantly. (Ouch.)
  • The gravy should be thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.
  • If it is too thick, add a little water to thin it.
  • Serve the fried steak and gravy with mashed potatoes and green beans. (Or cauliflower.)

When Jon and Melissa arrived for dinner I was just finishing the meat pounding process. Wow. I loved that a little too much. Then I made an assembly line of the ingredients for country fried steak and one by one I “dredged” the meat in flour, then coated them with egg and milk, then dredged them in flour again, then dropped them in the super hot oil on the stove. I looked around the room at David, Jon and Melissa, and when no one objected to anything I’d done, I realized, Bam! I was frying some country steak. And then I lost my shit. For real. I was so excited that I was making one of my most all-time favorite meals forever in the whole universe right there in my very own kitchen all by myself that I could hardly contain my excitement. I jumped up and down. And I jumped some more. And I kept jumping and bouncing (which was not unlike my totally fly dance moves some of you may have been fortunate enough to witness in the recent past) until David said, “Wow, you haven’t been this excited about any of your vegetables.” I mean, it was country fried steak, yo.

But then I started making the gravy, which made bouncing difficult since it required standing stationary at the stove and whisking (“constantly”) for a long, long, long, long, long, long, long, long time. My excitement over the country fried steak waned considerably as I stood there whisking and my friends moved about the house, doing fun things other than whisking. I was reminded of pumpkin cookies when I was tethered to the kitchen while my friends were engaged in 100 percent awesomeness in places far, far away from the kitchen. Here I was again, shackled to the stove. Ugh. Gravy. Terrible.

Like three years later when the gravy was finally done, we set the dining room table and fixed our plates with the world’s most awesome homemade country fried steak and gravy. Then I remembered the cauliflower. Damn.

But it was great! Damn you, Dad! (I’m sorry, I’m just kidding, I didn’t mean it.) Cauliflower smothered in cheese is really great. It’s not unlike…broccoli smothered in cheese, which I quite like. What’s the big deal, Dad?