Here’s a hipped up version of a Neapolitan Christmas Eve dish called insalata di rinforzo. Traditionally you toss boiled cauliflower with half of the Southern Italian pantry, including black and green olives, capers, anchovies, sometimes vinegar peppers, raisins and pine nuts, parsley, and always good olive oil. I’ve heard from many sources that the name, which means reinforcement salad, comes from the practice of adding more cauliflower as the dish gets consumed, making sure you’ll still have something to feed stragglers who might show up at your door. But Jo Bettoja, in her elegant book Family Recipes from the Kingdom of Two Sicilies, says the name actually derives from the dish’s role as a sturdy replacement for the meat you can’t eat on Christmas Eve. I thought octopus was the sturdy replacement, but in any event this is a robusto winter salad with great flavor.
The first time I made it was for a Christmas Eve dinner at my parents’. I came home from college for a big cook-a-thon with my mother and brother. Once we all sat down at the table, a weird fight broke out that nobody seemed to quite understand the cause of or be able to articulate the point of. There was some irritation whose source never came fully out in the open, or maybe we had too much vino, or waited too long for dinner, or all of the above. Whatever the reason, all of a sudden several of our non-family guests were putting on their coats and heading out to the Long Island Rail Road, to go back to the city in creepy silence. Could it have been my cauliflower? My sister thinks it was her saying she wanted to attend midnight mass, dragging out the evening to an unacceptable length. That was a strange Christmas Eve.
But back to insalata di rinforzo. I really like it, but there’s one part I’m never absolutely crazy about, the boiled taste of the cauliflower, which pokes through even after a toss with heavy seasoning. To avoid that I went ahead and created a roasted version. I also trimmed down the add-ins, choosing anchovies, of course, forgoing the olives and pickled stuff, but incorporating roasted sweet peppers, almonds, capers, fresh marjoram, and parsley. This reworked dish has a more contemporary texture but retains its traditional bold flavor. For me it works beautifully. I’m happy.
Roasted Cauliflower Salad with Capers, Almonds, and Marjoram
(Serves 4 as a side dish or first course)
1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
2 roasted and peeled red bell peppers, seeded and cut into medium chunks
1 fresh peperoncino, well chopped (seeded if you want less heat)
2 scallions, cut into thin rounds, using some of the tender green part
A palmful of whole blanched almonds, roughly chopped
A palmful of salt packed capers, soaked and rinsed
1 small garlic clove, minced
4 anchovy fillets, minced
Fresh lemon juice to taste
5 large marjoram sprigs
A handful of flat-leaf parsley leaves, lightly chopped
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Place the cauliflower on a sheet pan. Drizzle it with olive oil, and season with salt and the ground fennel. Mix well to distribute the seasoning, and bake until the cauliflower just starts to turn brown at the edges and is tender, probably around 20 minutes, stirring it around a few times so it cooks evenly.
Now add the roasted peppers, peperoncino, scallions, and almonds, mixing them in with the cauliflower. Bake for another 5 minutes. By this time the cauliflower should be nicely browned and the other ingredients should have warmed through and released their essences.
Pull the pan from the oven. Scatter on the capers, garlic, and minced anchovies, and let the heat from the pan open up their flavors.
Transfer the cauliflower to a big serving bowl. Drizzle on some lemon juice and a thread of fresh olive oil. Add the marjoram and parsley. Toss and taste for seasoning. Serve warm or at room temperature.