I’m thinking a lot about culinary school this week, because it was exactly one year ago that I entered the professional program at Tante Marie’s Cooking School in San Francisco. I had just left my job of many years in Chicago and felt the exhilaration of starting something new, and hard won. The house I lived in, a Victorian doll house in the heart of Pacific Heights, belonged to Tante Marie herself. So the place was primed for all things cooking, including a massive cookbook collection that included, don’t you know, signed copies of Jacques Pepin’s La Technique and La Methode. How many rental houses can boast bookshelves like that?
Walking to school that first week took my breath away as I surveyed the gorgeous bay views and climbed the stairmaster-style hills that were a necessary evil to get to and from my neighborhood. Or maybe not so evil, since they were a good antidote to the butter, eggs, cream, sugar, etc. etc. etc. that I was eating every day (you have to at least taste everything, at least taste).
When we arrived in the kitchen on the first day, we donned our uniforms as we would every day for the next six months, and sat at the tables in the front kitchen. This place was filled with natural light from an entire front wall of floor-to-ceiling windows, and the tables dignified our endeavor with white linens and fresh flowers (which wasn’t just for opening day dazzle; this was the set-up every day). The first order of business: how to hold a knife and how to chop. Chopping skills were not to be taken lightly. We had pop-reviews throughout the program when we would demonstrate our progress slicing a potato in half, then in thin, even discs.
I took heed and did not take the chopping lightly; I practiced religiously on potatoes, carrots, onions, zucchini, whatever took to being chopped. Getting accustomed to using large, razor-sharp knives all of the time was half my battle, and I have a nice scar on my left middle finger to prove it (I gave the finger—that finger—bloodied and angry, more than once to my chef’s knife when it sliced through my skin rather than veg skin).
Often I’ve been asked if culinary school is something like Chopped on the Food Network. Well yes, it is, especially when it comes to the exams. Our final exam went like this: enter the kitchens and discover the mystery ingredients. Spend half an hour preparing your plan of attack—your menu, your timetable. No recipes allowed. No talking allowed. Then let the games begin. An appetizer, main course, and dessert would be presented for review at half hour intervals three hours later.
I won’t reveal all of the mystery ingredients, other than the one that caused me such pain, literally and figuratively: a head of cauliflower. Great, I thought when I saw it, I know what to do with that bad boy. Don’t I? Well, a cauliflower soup to start would make the most sense in terms of time, strategy, and my ability to make it taste great. But I’d been slaving over ravioli for the past month and was bound and determined to demonstrate that I could finesse a fabulous ravioli first course. At that point nothing was going to trump my ravioli, and cauliflower and ravioli just don’t mix. It would have to stand as a side dish. I’d love to fry it up Lebanese-style, I thought, but without tahini since that would clash with my reduction sauce; it’d be easy and delectable.
Perhaps it was my indecision about the dessert course that distracted me when I got to my station to begin cooking. Strawberry Bavarian Cake or Glazed Chocolate Torte…I agonized over the tricky skills each would require to pull off perfectly. I was still thinking this over as I started to cut apart my cauliflower. The next thing I knew, there was blood on my side towel. What in the $@#*? Blood on the cauliflower too, and more blood on the wood countertop. A slice through that same knuckle of my middle left finger, a knuckle that should have been totally resilient and nimble by now. I grabbed the towel and pressed my hand until it felt like it had stopped bleeding, and after cleaning up the mess, I went back to cutting up the cauliflower. Which, within a few seconds, was red again from my hand. A time-out was unavoidable—a cruel reality when every minute counted in the lay-up to presenting the courses on time. I told the chef, our teacher Frances, about my mishap and she hustled into triage. She took great empathetic care of wounded students, no doubt because she herself had taken her share of painful hits in all of her years in restaurants. With my finger in what felt like a big, doughy gauze bandage, I went back at it.
The rest of the exam went smoothly, except that the cauliflower was nearly forgotten in the shuffle. By the time I had it back on my radar, the parboiling and frying was out of the question; no time. I shoved it in the oven with some onions and olive oil and roasted it at extremely high heat. The exam review sheet said my cauliflower was fine, could have used a squeeze of lemon to brighten it up. Fried cauliflower would have won them over, I lamented. “Fine” just never makes a girl’s day. But my ravioli, I’m happy to say, was given a rare, and welcome, taste rating of excellent.
Fried Cauliflower with Tahini Sauce
The tahini sauce here is something special. I think of it as an adult version of peanut butter. Note that if you’d rather not make, or eat, the cauliflower fried, you can eat it blanched, with the tahini sauce, and that tastes darn good too.
For the cauliflower:
3 tablespoons salt
1 head cauliflower
3 cups canola oil
For the tahini sauce:
½ cup tahini (well-stirred before measuring)
1 small garlic clove, green shoot removed, minced (optional)
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup water
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1 tablespoon chopped flat-leaf parsley
To prepare the cauliflower, core the head by cutting at an angle around the core. Wash the cauliflower, then break off florets, about 2-3 inches in size.
Blanch the cauliflower: in a large pot, bring 8 cups of water to boil. Add 3 tablespoons salt (this will give flavor to the cauliflower) and return to boil. Add the cauliflower and cook for three minutes, just until the florets are al dente, stirring once or twice. Drain and spread out on a towel to cool and dry, about 45 minutes. The florets must be completely dry before frying.
In a medium pot, heat the oil (1 ½ inches deep) to 375 degrees. Fry the cauliflower in batches of 5 or 6 at a time. Add the florets to the hot oil, which will bubble up rapidly all around the cauliflower. Fry until crisp and golden brown. Remove with a slotted spoon and place on a paper towel to absorb the oil. Return the oil to 375 degrees again before adding more cauliflower, and be sure to maintain steady heat throughout the frying process. To do this, increase and decrease the burner heat as needed, and remove the pot from the heat as needed as well. Serve immediately with tahini sauce.
For the tahini sauce, use a blender or a mini food processor for the lightest texture; hand-mixing in a bowl will work as well. Add the tahini, garlic and salt. With the blade running, slowly add the water and the lemon juice, stopping to scrape the sides and stir as needed. The sauce is similar to the thickness of yogurt, though much lighter. Stir in the parsley. Tahini sauce can be made ahead and refrigerated, covered. A tablespoon of water or lemon juice may need to be added to the tahini sauce once it’s refrigerated, as it will thicken.
Keep some tahini sauce on hand as a dip for all kinds of vegetables as well as pita chips. It lasts, covered and refrigerated, about a week if it includes parsley or two weeks without.
You can find a PDF of this recipe here.