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A very big birthday – one ending in zero – befell Beloved Spouse this week. We considered declaring it to be fake news and paying it no attention, but in the end we decided to celebrate it. In our house (as should be common knowledge by now), celebration requires dining on excellent food and wine, so that’s what we did – with a menu chosen by Himself.

We made a bold start with caviar and champagne. In addition to the relatively inexpensive American “osetra” that we’ve bought online in the past, the birthday boy snuck in a tiny jar of Russian osetra, for comparison. Alas: It was noticeably better than the domestic one, making it a costly taste to try to avoid acquiring. The champagne was Krug, a gift from a very good friend. And very Krug it was, a big, vigorous, richly flavored companion to the caviar.
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This luscious start, Himself averred, already began to ease the sting of the birthday’s bigness.

For the main course, he had requested saucisson en croûte, a large sausage baked in a pastry crust. I’d never made one before, but with a little help from Julia Child, in Mastering, I set to work. Early in the day I simmered a one-pound cotechino sausage in water until fully cooked and made up a batch of pâte brisée. Later I rolled out an oblong of the pastry dough, brushed the center with mustard, and set the cooled and skinned sausage on it. I encased the sausage in the dough and rolled out another strip to lay over the top, decorated it modestly and brushed it with egg glaze.
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The stuffed pastry baked in a hot oven for 45 minutes.

For a vegetable, the birthday celebrant joined me in the kitchen and washed, parboiled, drained, and sauteed a bunch of fresh Swiss chard in butter with chopped onion. As a condiment we served mostarda di Cremona, fruits poached in mustard syrup, which we bring back from our trips to Italy. The combination was excellent. Though the pastry crust tried to fall apart at the slicing, it was very tasty, seeming to have imbibed some meaty essence from the juicy, spicy sausage.
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In keeping with the developing binational theme of the meal (American and Russian caviar, Italian sausage in French pastry, Italian fruits and Swiss chard) Tom selected two bottles from his wine closet to drink with the main course, one each from Italy and France, both vintage 2004: a Barolo riserva from Giacomo Borgogno and a Nuits-St.-Georges from Drouhin.
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He was curious to see which one would go better with the food. Here he is with the result.

The two wines behaved remarkably similarly with all the elements of the dinner, both feeling soft, even velvety, on the palate, and tasting of earth-and-mineral-inflected dark fruit. Neither wine was anywhere near its peak, but both showed well, enjoyably drinkable and fresh, while hinting of the greater complexity they’d be capable of in the future. The Barolo evidenced a bit more tannin, the Burgundy a bit more acid – but either wine would have served comfortably as the consort of the dishes. Another illustration of why so often Barolo and Burgundy are compared!

(In a rare fit of birthday moderation, we didn’t finish either wine; nor did we finish the champagne.)

To conclude this festive meal we indulged in a pair of purchased chocolate delicacies: a square of opera cake and a chocolate mousse tartlet.
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(We didn’t finish either of them, either.)

And so ended another decade of the culinary and enological adventures of Himself and his adoring spouse. We mustn’t wait too long to have Russian osetra again and another bottle of Krug. After all, who knows how many more decades we have in us?

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As a first course for my most recent dinner party – on what was predicted to be an extremely cold night – I wanted something warm and savory but not too heavy, to precede a cassoulet: good stick-to-the-ribs fare. I considered a large Alsace onion tart or individual cheese tarts; both very tasty but also things that I make fairly often for dinner guests. The two concepts coalesced in my brain, with a slight variation: Let’s do individual leek tarts!

Leeks are a great winter vegetable, and even though I’d never made or eaten leeks in a tart, I was confident they’d be good that way. None of my cookbooks had recipes for it, but a little online research produced many, all quite similar. As the main difference among them was the relative proportions of the ingredients, I decided this was a do-it-however-you-like deal. So I did.

One of my local grocery stores carries excellent big leeks, sold individually rather than prepacked in bunches. I bought three.
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When Beloved Spouse began cutting them up for me, the white and tender green parts of only two of them filled a four-cup measure, so I stopped him there. (No problem about the extra: leeks never go to waste in my kitchen.) I melted butter and olive oil in a sauté pan and cooked the leeks gently until they were just tender.
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At that point the online recipes variously said to add either heavy cream, light cream, or half-and-half, as well as grated gruyère. Instead I stirred in a cup of mascarpone. When it had fully melted and smoothed out, I added half a cup of gruyère, and the tart filling was ready.
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For my pastry shells I used a pâte brisée recipe from Simone Beck’s Simca’s Cuisine. I like it because the dough is made with a whole egg and white wine, which give it a little flavor boost. Three-ounce balls of dough are just the right amount for my 4½-inch fluted tart pans.
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After filling the shells with the leek mixture I distributed another half cup of gruyère over their tops and baked them at 375° for 30 minutes. They were just beginning to brown when I took them out of the oven.
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All this was done the day before the dinner party. Cooled and covered, the tarts sat overnight in a cold room. At dinner time the next day I put them under the broiler for ten minutes to complete the browning.

Alas, I can’t show you the final result. In the bustle of serving the meal I purely forgot to take a photo of the tarts. But they were a great success, and the guests loved them. The vegetal brightness of the leeks, the lush creaminess of the mascarpone, and the warm, buttery crunch of the pastry played off each other beautifully.

If those little tarts had a fault, it was more richness than was perhaps advisable for diners about to tackle a cassoulet – but we all finished them anyway!

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‘Tis the season for gastronomical indulgences large and small. One seasonal treat that’s small in size but large in the amount of pleasure it provides is fresh porcini mushrooms. When these fabulous fungi are available in one of my local markets I have to have some, despite their stratospheric prices, because they give distinction to the simplest dinner.
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The specimens above are practically infants. In late fall, restaurants in Italy often display bowlfuls of porcini with caps typically about five inches across. But even the little ones have the species’ depth of unmatchable flavor, so a few almost always follow me home.
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With this batch, Beloved Spouse stepped into the chef’s role. Some 30 years ago, when he was on a wine writers’ trip in Genoa, he was served a magnificent dish of a huge porcino cap reposing on a bed of thinly sliced potatoes, both slathered with excellent olive oil, apparently oven-roasted and finished briefly under a broiler. He remembers it as ambrosia, and from his description, I’d envied him that experience for a very long time. So, with porcini at hand and his reputation for reliable memory at stake, this week he set about making something like it for us at home.

First he thinly sliced all-purpose potatoes, parboiled them for a few minutes, and drained them.  While they were cooling and drying, he briefly seethed a sliced clove of garlic in about two-thirds of a cup of olive oil, not letting it color. Then he removed the garlic, spread a little of the oil in a gratin dish, and laid out the potato slices, adding salt and pepper.
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On top he placed the sliced porcini stems and whole caps, brushing everything generously with the garlic-scented olive oil and pouring the rest of the oil around the potatoes.
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The dish went into a 375° degree oven for about 20 minutes, followed by a few minutes under the broiler for browning.
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The caps had shrunk somewhat, which slightly marred their appearance, but not at all their flavor. The aroma of the dish was as captivating as its taste. The potatoes loved the porcini, and vice versa. You couldn’t taste the garlic as itself, only as a subtle enlivening of the other flavors.  The porcini were transcendent – rich and meaty, a bit suggestive of sweetbreads.

This may not have been the legendary dish of that Genoese restaurant, but Beloved Spouse thought it very close, and it turned a simple meal of grilled skirt steak and broiled eggplant into a thoroughly satisfying little feast.
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I’m encouraging him to keep on experimenting, if he thinks he can improve it any further!

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I’ve done posts on making Christmas cookies ever since I started writing this blog. Most have been about various favorite recipes that I’ve made for many years. Since I try to write about dishes that will interest my readers, I know I shouldn’t feature the same cookies every year, no matter how beloved they are. (In that respect, writing about food is different from making it.) So this year’s cookie post is about two kinds I’ve never made before, along with a to-me-irresistible celebration of two of the kinds without which it wouldn’t be Christmas at our house.

Candied Orange Peel Cookies

These are based on a recipe called Cherry Cookies that I found in the Cookies & Crackers volume of the Time-Life Good Cook series. I just substituted candied orange peel for the recipe’s candied cherries. The original was a pre-war English recipe by Florence White, who in 1928 founded the English Folk Cookery Association “to capture the charm of England’s cookery before it is completely crushed out of existence.”

The age of the recipe is evident from the absence of any kitchen machines in its instructions – which I tried to follow as written. So I rubbed the butter into the flour by hand, then stirred in sugar and the minced candied peel. Next, I was to “bind the mixture with beaten egg to form a cohesive dough” using a knife. Odd as that sounded, I tried it, but a knife is really not the tool for that job. Surely there were spoons in those days! I reverted to completing the dough by hand.

The rolling, cutting, and baking were the standard procedures, and the cookies came out quite well. Firm and crunchy, with a little chewiness and pleasant flavor from the orange peel, they have a certain charm as an old-fashioned holiday treat. They’ll also be very nice, I think, alongside a not-too-sweet dessert wine.
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Spice Sablés

I found this recipe for a sort of modern variation on spice cookies in Lee Bailey’s Country Desserts. It’s attributed to the pastry chef of the ultra-fashionable, now long-closed Barefoot Contessa food shop in ultra-fashionable East Hampton. Despite the glamorous pedigree, it’s a good, sturdy cookie.

To sablés’ basic shortbread mix of butter, sugar, and flour, the recipe adds ground almonds, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, and Grand Marnier. These, and the use of brown sugar rather than white, struck me as intriguing flavors for a cookie.

I almost got in trouble over my long-kept brown sugar, which had solidified in the annoying way it does, and had to be pulverized. Unlike fresh brown sugar, it had no moisture, and I didn’t take that into account in mixing my dough. Accordingly, it was very dry and refused to hold together, even after overnight refrigeration. The next day I realized the cause of the problem and was able to correct the texture by kneading some water into the dough. That held it together for rolling out and cutting in Christmas tree shapes.

The cookies are very good. The texture isn’t as “sandy” as sablés typically are, but just a little rough in the way shortbread is. The flavor is unusual, subtle, and interesting. Though very plain looking, they’re rich and satisfying, and will make a nice addition to my Christmas repertory..
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Peanut Butter Cookies

Is there anything more quintessentially American than peanut butter cookies at Christmas time? I’ve made them every year-end holiday season for as long as I can remember, and my mother made them all through my childhood. This batch came out exceptionally well, a little crisper and more tender than some in past years. I feel awfully sorry for people with peanut allergies, who can’t enjoy these little delights.
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Ruggelach

Cream cheese in the dough for these tiny rolls makes for a smooth, soft pastry, which happily encloses fruit and nut fillings. I make them as my mother did, way back in my childhood. This year I did half the batch with walnuts, hazelnuts, cinnamon, and sugar, the other half with the two nuts and strawberry jam. They’re festive flavors, and both kinds came out very well. It may be a bit of a struggle to keep Beloved Spouse from eating them all before Christmas gets here.

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If at first you don’t succeed . . . you may not do much better the second time, either! That was my fate when following a recipe for coffee panettone sent to me by my friend Jennifer with a note saying “I have made this – delicious.” With the Christmas season already thundering down on us like a runaway herd of reindeer, I thought it would be interesting to give it a try.

It was clear from the first that “panettone” was purely a courtesy title for this confection. True panettone is rich in butter and eggs; this recipe uses no eggs and only a dollop of vegetable shortening. It doesn’t even call for kneading the dough; just mixing it. It also must be quite an old recipe, because it calls for “seedless” raisins. How long has it been since that had to be specified?!  Nonetheless, I figured that, even if this was only a sweet tea bread, it could be good. I was feeling experimental, and this is the season for fruit-and-nut breads.

So I made a batch. I began by chopping walnuts and candied orange peel – proper seasonal ingredients – to accompany the raisins.
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For the dough I first had to dissolve yeast in warm water and a cup of “strong warm coffee”; add soft shortening, salt, sugar, and baking soda; and stir in enough flour to make a batter. I confess to using melted butter for the shortening and very strong instant espresso for the coffee.
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Then the remaining flour went in, along with the fruits, nuts, and vanilla extract. Even though the recipe didn’t say to, I kneaded it for a few minutes. It made a very sticky dough, which was reluctant to rise. After three hours it still wasn’t doubled in bulk, but I moved on anyway and transferred it to two bread pans. (The recipe preferred to form the traditional panettone shape in cylindrical coffee cans, but I didn’t have any.)
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After another two hours, when the loaves had grudgingly risen as much as they evidently intended to, I baked them at 350° for 40 minutes. The dratted things didn’t rise any more in the oven either – in fact, they sank somewhat. That made for heavy, dense, chewy bread.

Though it was fairly ugly, it didn’t taste too bad: sort of like a panforte or a not-very-sweet fruitcake. Lightly toasted and slathered with butter, I thought it was edible. Beloved Spouse, my personal Grinch, did not.
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Now, as it happened, Jennifer – the donator of the recipe – came for a visit a few days later. I hauled out one of my bricks of panettone and showed it to her. “Did yours come out like this?” “No, it didn’t.” I gave her a taste. She said kind things. I gnashed my teeth.

Obviously, I’d done something wrong. I thought it most likely that the coffee had been too hot, and maybe too strong, so it killed or crippled the yeast. I’d give it another try.

I went through the whole procedure again, making a half recipe. This time my espresso was freshly brewed, not unusually strong, and only just warm. I used Crisco, not butter, and did no actual kneading, only vigorous mixing. The dough looked and felt better than the first batch, and it rose much more in the bowl, even though it still took nearly three hours to get there.
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It rose better in the pan too, so I was hopeful. But wouldn’t you know it, the same thing happened in the oven – it sank again! This time I have no idea why. This loaf looked more respectable than the first ones, at least: It was a whole two inches high, instead of only one inch.
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Also, it was lighter in weight, softer in texture, and altogether more pleasant tasting. I, at least, thought so. Beloved Spouse was not persuaded.
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More attractive, yes, but it still isn’t what it should be, and it definitely isn’t panettone. Will I try a third time? I doubt it. If I want a panettone for Christmas, I’ll buy a good one.

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Johnny Apple (R.W. Apple, Jr) was a distinguished journalist and legendary personality who wrote for more than 40 years, mostly for The New York Times, about international affairs, wars, politics, business – and food and drink. Back in 1997, he contributed a raisin pie recipe to Saveur’s Thanksgiving issue. Never having heard of raisin pie before, I was intrigued. I clipped the recipe, kept it for 20 years, and – patient soul that I am – finally made it for this year’s holiday dinner.

Here’s the magazine’s picture of the pie.

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The crust is a lightly sweetened pâte brisée, easy to make and fairly easy to work with. I made up the dough a day in advance and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

I also made the filling that day. To begin, I simmered orange juice, orange zest, and golden raisins over low heat for five minutes. I stirred in allspice and nutmeg, some cornstarch dissolved in water, and a whole heap of granulated sugar. That was to be cooked, stirred constantly, until the mixture thickened, which the recipe said would take about five minutes.
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Not mine: I stirred and stirred for nearly ten minutes, and the liquid part looked about as it had at the beginning. I was afraid to cook it any longer, lest it scorch, so I took it off the stove and stirred in the final ingredients: lemon juice and chopped walnuts. The mixture did thicken a little as it cooled, and a little more after its night in the refrigerator.
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Early on Thanksgiving morning I put together the pie. I rolled out half the dough for a bottom crust, fitted it into my pie dish, and poured in the filling. I rolled out the remaining dough and cut it into strips for a lattice. The recipe said not to try to weave the lattice because the dough was too tender, so I just laid half the strips across the filling horizontally and the other half on top vertically.
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A little trimming and fussing to smooth the rim of the crust, and the pie looked quite nice when it was ready for the oven.
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The recipe said to bake at 350° for about 30 minutes, until the crust was golden and the filling bubbly. Now, I’m a pretty experienced pie maker, and that seemed like a very low temperature and a very short time. But this was not my usual kind of pie, so I proceeded as directed.

After half an hour the crust was still quite pale and there was nary a bubble in sight. I kept setting the timer for additional five minuteses, to almost no effect. At 50 minutes, I raised the temperature to 375° and after one more five-minute session finally saw bubbling and some browning around the edges of the crust. I called it done.
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Looks very different from Saveur’s pie, doesn’t it? Of course, you have to expect food stylists to burnish magazines’ dishes. But between the non-thickening of my filling and the non-browning of my pastry, I was beginning to worry about my pie. Well, it was what it was.

In the afternoon I packed it in a carrier and trundled it along to the home of the friends with whom we always spend Thanksgiving. There it took its place in the finale of a sumptuous holiday dinner.
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It was good. (Whew!) Very sweet, something like a mincemeat pie, but lighter; very fruity and nutty. The pastry was a little heavier than I’d have liked, but it served well enough. Some of the diners thought it reminiscent of a pecan pie, and it did seem to have a bit of southern sweet accent. But mostly it was sui generis – very different from any holiday pie I’d made before. A little strange at first, but its flavor grew on you as you nibbled along. So, here’s Thanksgiving thanks to Saveur’s “Author Apple” for an interesting finish to a holiday feast.

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When I was growing up, my mother never cooked cauliflower. What we knew of it, we didn’t like. When I’d encountered it at other people’s homes, it was boiled long enough to bring out the sulfur smell and was drenched with a sauce of Velveeta cheese. It took many years for me to realize cauliflower didn’t have to be like that.

It was when I started doing some Indian cooking, and discovered the many interesting ways that cuisine uses cauliflower, that I became curious about the vegetable. I now know that, when not overcooked, it has a wonderful ability to bond with all kinds of other flavors. I still don’t serve it often, because an average-sized whole cauliflower is a lot for a two-person household to get through. But I do choose it occasionally. Here are the simple ways I dealt with the head that I brought home this week.

 

Day 1: Warm cauliflower salad

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I took about a third of the florets off the head, steamed them for seven minutes, until they were just tender. I also chopped ½ cup of celery, ¼ cup of onion, and ⅛ cup of Tuscan pickled peppers.
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While the florets were still warm, I tossed them gently in a bowl with the chopped vegetables, extra-virgin olive oil, my own wine vinegar, salt, and pepper. I had to be careful with the vinegar because my Tuscan peppers were very strongly pickled.
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The mixture made a pleasant, light vegetable starter for a weekday dinner. In spring or summer, I also add a few thinly sliced radishes and some of their tiny leaves to this salad; but I never buy radishes in November.

 

Day 2: Cavolfiore fritto

In principle, I follow Marcella Hazan’s recipe for breaded and fried cauliflower, though it’s such an easy process that it hardly needs a recipe. This evening I took off half the remaining florets from my head of cauliflower, steamed them for only five minutes (since they’d be getting more cooking later), and let them cool. I dipped them first in an egg beaten with salt, then in dry breadcrumbs.
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Beloved Spouse then stepped up and fried them for me, in half an inch of very hot olive oil. It took only about a minute on each side for them to turn richly golden.
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While the steaming and breading can be done an hour or more in advance, once the florets are fried, they need to be eaten right away to be at their best.
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This time they were, as always, crisp, crunchy, and delicious – an excellent accompaniment to broiled lamb chops. Actually, they would work well with almost any un-sauced meat or fowl.

 

Day 3: Cauliflower soup

I dedicated the rest of my cauliflower to a favorite soup. The original recipe is from Alfred Portale’s Twelve Seasons Cookbook. There it’s called a vichyssoise, to be served cold. I make just the basic soup, leaving out several of the recipe’s garnishes, and I like to serve it hot.

To make a small enough soup for the amount of cauliflower florets I had left this week, I chopped ¼ cup of onions and thinly sliced ⅓ cup of leeks.
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I sauteed those two vegetables in a tablespoon of olive oil, then added the florets and a cup of chicken broth from a bouillon cube.
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This cooked, covered, for 20 minutes, until the florets were tender. Then I pureed everything in a blender. I tasted and added salt and pepper, and the soup was ready to reheat at dinner time.
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This simple soup is just amazingly good. In a blind tasting, you probably wouldn’t guess it was cauliflower; you’d distinguish only a generic vegetal sweetness. And it’s such a rich puree you’d think it must be at least half butter and cream. I’m sure the dressed-up version – with sauteed cauliflower slices, a dose of olive oil, and a sprinkling of chopped chives – would be excellent too, but I’ve never felt the need to try it.

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There’s nothing complex in these cauliflower dishes, especially compared to those in typical Indian recipes, but each is very tasty, and together they show the versatility of the vegetable I once disliked. We live and learn, eh?

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