The Cauliflower Connection
BY CAROLINE CHIRICHELLA
Fried cauliflower. Such a simple dish, nothing crazy or complicated. Cauliflower. eggs. breadcrumbs. parsley. pecorino. seasoning. oil.
My grandma is taking the cauliflower out of the sizzling oil. She drains it, letting the paper towel absorb the oil. I have to do my best to wait for it all to cool off before I dig in. But when I do, wow. From my first bite, I’m hooked. It’s heavenly, the taste of the tender cauliflower lightly coated with bread crumbs and cheese, still steaming hot. I lick my fingers clean and reach for a second piece, then a third.
All this I remember as if it were yesterday, even though it happened more than 20 years ago.
As little kids, my older brother Michael and I spent a lot of time with our Grandma Nettie, my mother’s mother. Antoinette Chirichella took us for Saturday strolls through her neighborhood in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. We went to the park, visited friends, and ran a few errands. Our outings always ended with a stop at McDonald’s for lunch.
My brother loved the food at McDonald’s and so he would usually order a cheeseburger and fries. But I was a hardcore foodie from about age six on, and I never went for the offerings there. Afterward, we would all go back to my grandma’s tiny apartment and there, she would cook something special just for me.
“Every time I cook at home now, I feel as if my grandma is watching over me.”
Sometimes she prepared hot crunchy Italian chicken cutlets. Other times she made steaming meatballs served with pasta and freshly made tomato sauce – or, as referred to in our Italian household, gravy. And on still other occasions she cooked fried cauliflower. She knew I needed to eat, and she did it to make me happy. She wanted my memories from these moments together to last me a lifetime.
In this, my grandma succeeded abundantly. She could have given me a bowl of cereal to fill my belly. But no. She wanted to cook for me at home and create something that could be shared and feed me a meal that came from her heart. I swear I could taste the love that she put into everything she made for me. Little did she suspect that the fried cauliflower would turn out to change my life forever.
I turned my passion for food and cooking into a full-time career. I worked as a private chef and caterer in my hometown of New York City. Then I attended culinary school in Florence and moved to Southern Italy. Here I host a private dining club on the upper floor of my house, complete with a terrace that offers a commanding view of mountains in the distance.
And in the open kitchen where I cook my dinners for guests, in a framed photo hung on the wall, is a hand-written recipe that my Grandma Nettie passed down from her own mother. It’s for Pizza Rustica, a ham, sausage and cheese pie that’s particularly popular at Easter. Just as my favorite food memory from my grandmother is fried cauliflower, this is my mother’s. A recipe that started in Brooklyn has returned to its home in Italy.
Every time I cook at home now, I feel as if my grandma is watching over me.
If my mother or I now make fried cauliflower, it’s as though I’m back in Brooklyn on one of those Saturday afternoons. Sometimes my eyes well up with tears. Our version of fried cauliflower never tastes exactly like my grandma’s, but that doesn’t matter. It’s the idea of it, and how it embodied her love for me.
My grandma was my second mom. She passed away when I was eleven years old. But she’s never left me because I still think of her every day of my life. I still remember it all so clearly — the aroma of her fresh tomato sauce, the texture of her cotton house dress on my fingers, the breeze wafting through her apartment, the sound of the cartoons on the television in the background.
“She passed away when I was eleven years old. But she’s never left me because I still think of her every day of my life.”
My grandma could have made me anything and I probably would have loved it. But it just so happened to be fried cauliflower I loved the most. It was delicious, but it was more than delicious. It nourished my body, but to this day it also nourishes my soul. One bite and I’m back with my grandma in the kitchen. And it all led me to my livelihood as a chef.
Food, at its best, can take you into the past or the future, or both.
This past September, I gave birth to my first child. My daughter will carry my grandma’s given name, Antonia. I’ll want our girl to feel as connected to my grandma as I do, and to have special memories of her own. I already know which food I’ll someday be sure to make for her.
Grandma Nettie’s Fried Cauliflower
1 head of cauliflower
1 cup of flour
2 cups bread crumbs
1/2 grated parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper
2 cups of neutral frying oil
Cut your head of cauliflower into stalks. Fill a bowl with the flour. Fill another bowl with 3 eggs, whisked. In another bowl, add the breadcrumbs, chopped garlic, parsley, parmesan, salt, pepper, and red pepper and mix. Add the oil to a deep frying pan and put on medium heat. Drench your cauliflower stalks one a time in the flour, then the whisked eggs and finally, the bread crumb mix. Add the oil once hot and let fry for around 2 minutes on each side until golden and crispy. Take out and serve fresh and hot!
Editor’s Note: For a healthier version, the cauliflower can be roasted instead of deep-fried.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
CAROLINE CHIRICHELLA is a former New Yorker now working as a chef and freelance writer in Italy.
For another way to cook this recipe without deep frying, check this one out