Cauliflower is a very fashionable vegetable nowadays. You will see it on restaurant menus from San Francisco to New York to London, prepared in myriad ways from sliced thick and served as steak, to roasted, to grated and used instead of flour as a base for gluten-free pizza, and so on. But using it to make a sauce for pasta has not yet, as far as I know, been adopted by chefs even though it is a typical Sicilian way of using green cauliflower when in season. Some of you will already know that I am well on my way to becoming Sicilian, at least in as far as having a home there, and as a result, I am spending a fair amount of time on the island, staying on a beautiful organic farm belonging to my friend, Mary Taylor Simeti, who is also my guru for all things Sicilian — Mary is the author of the ultimate book on Sicilian food. So when I saw green cauliflower at the greengrocer, I decided to buy one before the season ends. Easter is the cut off time for cauliflower. Initially, I was going to make the pasta sauce myself. I had learned it from Mary but as she is just up the lane from my casetta, I thought why not have the master (or should I say mistress!) make it. And so it was. I carried my cauliflower to Mary’s house with my camera to snap her make the sauce while her gorgeous grandchildren sat mesmerized watching cartoons on the TV.
I seem to specialise in dramatically changing the course of my life every few years, mainly for the sake of keeping it interesting. When I was young I did it every five years or so. Now that I am older, it is every ten years or so. This year I decided to change my life again. I sold my beautiful loft to downsize in London and upsize in Sicily where I plan to build my dream house. It wasn’t a rash decision. I have been wanting to build my dream house for a few years now; and I toyed with different ideas of where to do it. Syria was once an option! Then I considered California, also France and even Spain despite not speaking any Spanish. Then one day, I decided to go to the olive harvest on Mary Taylor Simeti‘s farm in Sicily and while there I decided that Sicily was where I would make this happen. The landscape and way of life there are very close to those in Lebanon and Syria where I grew up, but more orderly and with no risk of ISIS ever coming close. I had been to Sicily before but living on Mary’s farm in my own little casetta made me feel that the island was where I could feel I was going back home without actually doing so. And so it was. Mary introduced me to a friend of hers, Giovanni Matta, who took me to three different plots in one single day and the last one turned out to be the perfect spot. I must have been born under a lucky star!
Yesterday I was taken to buy saffron by my wonderful friend, Maryam Abdallah, Qatar’s first TV chef and a wonderful cook and educator. On the way, she gave me a wonderful tip on how to make sure I am buying real saffron which I thought I would pass on. Now, you probably don’t need to know this if you are buying saffron pre-packed by the gram but you better know it if you are going to buy saffron in industrial quantities the way they do in the souk. It’s very simple. All you need to do is ask the vendor for 3 or 4 threads of saffron which you put on your tongue and suck on for a few seconds. You then spit the threads out onto a clean tissue and rub them inside the tissue. If they colour it yellow, you know you are buying real saffron. If they colour it red, you are being sold coloured threads that have nothing to do with saffron. I wish my friend who recently brought me tons of saffron from Morocco knew this because he would have avoided buying a whole lot of fake saffron with only a few real threads in between for the smell! The top picture is of how they sell saffron here in Qatar, bunched up in ‘bouquets’ of 10 grams and below is a picture of my test to make sure I was not being sold fake saffron!
Compared to twenty years ago when I started writing about food when ingredients like frikeh (or freekeh) and argan oil were known to only a few westerners, there are now less and less secret ingredients, or indeed cuisines. You would think that with diners’ enthusiasm for global dishes and ingredients there isn’t much left for chefs or keen cooks to discover. But there is. And this is what we did last month at Books for Cooks, when I and Nadya Saleh from the National Museum of Qatar‘s Food Forum together with the delightful and very talented Aisha al-Tamimi introduced a keen audience to Qatari dishes they were totally unfamiliar with. The two cooking demonstrations were led by Aisha and were part of Nour Festival and Qatar UK, the latter being a collaboration between Qatar and the UK to exchange cultural and art events while the former is an initiative by the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to showcase Middle Eastern art and culture.