From cabbage to cauliflower

I was going to talk about cabbage today, but then I had lunch.

To be fair, a couple things transpired before that. First of all, the sun was shining. Brightly. It was just pouring through the windows. And while I love cabbage, I tend to seek out its company when the days are damp and grey and bleak and I can pretend I am a Russian babushka slurping my soup or melting into my braise, safe and warm, as the wind or snow or my drunken husband bangs outside the door. In other words, not today.

Secondly, I went to the doctor. I've been dealing with a stress fracture for a couple months now and this morning I went to get the results of my latest x-ray. And, triumph! There are no signs of nothing, baby!

Sunshine, celebration. I needed something dazzling, not downtrodden.

On my way home I stopped by the grocery store and cauliflower was on sale for a mere 78 cents. It was a short leap from that to chermoula. Cher-what, you say? Chermoula. It's a herb sauce that varies, as these things do, depending on whether you're in Algeria or Morocco or Tunisia. As a constant, it'll contain cilantro and garlic.

The version I tried comes from Martha Rose Shulman, an expert on Mediterranean cookery and one of my favourite recipe writers. I discovered Mediterranean Harvest last summer and have since returned to it over and over and over and over again. I've even made some things from it twice. Those of you who know me will find that shocking. The recipes are laid out clearly, focus on seasonal ingredients and, most importantly, work.

With this one you're going to need a mortar and pestle. Sorry, Mom. You start by plucking the leaves from bunches of cilantro and parsley. It takes awhile but I wouldn't worry about it. You can munch on the stems as you work and listen to some old records (today it was Janis Joplin and Hank Williams) and sing along. You should also prepare yourself because you're about to wage full-scale war on those pretty, innocent, little herbs. You snip them with scissors, then assault them with a sharp knife and you're not done yet, oh no. You mash some garlic and salt to a paste in your mortar, add the disappearing leaves and pestle away until they dissolve. Those are Martha's exact words. Once you've eradicated the herbs it’s time to add a bit of heat (cayenne pepper), a lot of zip (fresh lemon juice) and some olive oil to round it all out. Your heap of herbs have been reduced to a slick, bright-green paste. Victory! The spoils of war, in this case, are fresh and lively. The chermoula glitters and sparkles like a jewel in the sun. It is intensely pungent, herbal, emerald-sharp.

My lunch today was a plate of roasted, caramelized cauliflower (what a crucifer!) with a dab of chermoula on the side. It was vivid and bright and just right for today – for the sunshine, for the promise of spring, for the chance to walk normally again. Light to celebrate light.

And, just so you know, chermoula is said to pair well with fish, heck all seafood, grilled meat (dolloped on top or as a marinade), roasted winter squash, carrots, and all sorts of grilled vegetables. I don’t know about cabbage though. Let's talk about that some other time. For now, I’m off to celebrate, with whiskey and salted caramel ice cream!

Adapted from Martha Rose Shulman

2 cups cilantro leaves (about 2 bunches)
1 ½ cups parsley leaves (about 1 bunch)
4 garlic cloves, halved and (if they’re there) green shoots removed
½ tsp salt
2 tsp cumin seeds, toasted then ground
1 tsp sweet paprika
½ tsp coriander seeds, toasted then ground
1/8 tsp cayenne pepper, or to taste
1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup lemon juice, freshly squeezed

Chop the cilantro and parsley leaves using a pair of scissors. Point the tip down into the measuring cup and snip away. Then, chop the herbs very finely using a sharp knife.

Put the garlic and salt in a mortar and squish into a paste. Add your spices and mix. Add some of the chopped herbs, a little at a time, and grind until the herbs begin to dissolve. Continue until all the herbs have been incorporated. Add the olive oil and lemon juice and mix again. Taste and adjust the seasoning. If you find it too lemony add a bit more olive oil.

Makes about one cup.

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