On our way home from a Thanksgiving family reunion in Phoenix, Arne and I stopped in Flagstaff for lunch at a place called Pita Jungle. It’s an Arizona chain (with one location in California). It sounded like a pleasingly healthy, vegetable-focused option – just what we were in the mood for. As soon as we looked at the menu (actually, when I was checking out the menu on my phone in the car), a starter caught my eye: Caramelized Cauliflower with Tahini.
I didn’t always love cauliflower. I vividly remember the first time I ate cauliflower and actually liked it. We were visiting Arne’s parents’ cabin in Colorado, and had just been on a long hike. Arne’s parents could really book it up a mountain, and I was exhausted. Dinner landed on the table, and I was so hungry I didn’t even give the big bowl of steamed cauliflower the side-eye. I just took a big bite, and was floored. It tasted so sweetly vegetal, so nutritious, so purely good. It may have been the first time I’d been served cauliflower cooked enough – I still don’t care for it crunchy – or it may have been the magic of the mountains and bodily exertion. In any case, that mouthful changed everything.
Over the years I’ve fallen more and more deeply in love with a vegetable I used to hate. The next revelation was roasted cauliflower. Tossed with olive oil and salt and exposed to the magic of high heat, cauliflower concentrates its sweetness and becomes even more delicious.
Fairly recently, I learned the magic trick that brings the roasted cauliflower in this recipe to the next level: Instead of breaking the head into chunks, slice it. This is not only easier, it creates broad flat swathes to contact the hot pan, browning and caramelizing in the most mouth-watering way.
The cauliflower at Pita Jungle was well browned, by that technique or some other, and covered in a thick tahini sauce and a small pile of crisp caramelized onions. Even while thinking the cauliflower was delicious enough not to need quite so much sauce, I was chasing the stuff around to catch as much of it as possible. Clearly Pita Jungle had something here.
I brought the idea home and made a few changes to turn it into an easily composed winter salad. I ditched the caramelized onions and replaced them with chopped sun-dried tomatoes and Kalamata olives, tossing it all together with a slightly revised version of Crescent Dragonwagon’s scrumptious Lemon-Tahini-Tamari Dressing.
It was magic. The sweet toothsomeness of the cauliflower, the brightness of the tomatoes and brininess of the olives all come together perfectly with the rich, tangy dressing. The overall effect is luxurious – especially for a vegan dish – but not heavy. And it’s easy to put together. Though the cauliflower has to roast for a while, so it’s not quick, there’s only 10 or 15 minutes of hands-on time. And it’s good warm or at room temperature, so it can fit easily into your schedule. It would double or even triple easily. The dressing makes three times what you need for this recipe, but it’s so delicious you’ll use it up with no trouble. Try it on a green salad, or as a veggie dip, or as a spread for a pita sandwich.
I love this salad so much I made it three times in two weeks. Once was for a party, where it was devoured and several people asked for the recipe. I had meant for it to be a side dish, but it wound up being treated as an appetizer, so I can testify that if you cut the cauliflower into smaller pieces it’s right at home on a cracker or a piece of bread.
One head of cauliflower makes two main-dish salads, but they are not big salads – the cauliflower cooks down a lot – so plan to serve them with bread and maybe a little cheese to fill out the meal.