Asian Comfort Food

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As a ten- year-old boy, that word struck fear and loathing in my heart. I was generally tolerant of eating my vegetables. Peas and carrots? Fine. Broccoli? As long as there was some melted cheddar involved, we were cool. But cauliflower? *Shudder*. It was a pile of white, bland, mushiness that stood between me and a scoop of ice cream.

I’m a child of the ‘80s, from deep in the suburbs of Atlanta. I was raised by a single mom who couldn’t spend time on elaborate meal preparations. Every vegetable of my childhood came in Green Giant bags from the freezer, and preparation consisted of dumping the contents of those bags into boiling water for an hour or so.  No seasonings, no caramelization, just boiled frozen or canned vegetables with a little melted butter. None of these vegetables were great, some were tolerable, but I drew the line on three of them. No amount of begging, pleading, or bribing me with ice cream could get me to suffer through more than a bite of cauliflower, beets, or Brussels sprouts.

Times have changed, and I’m happy to be part of a generation of chefs that helped reimagine how American diners look at vegetables. When I began cooking professionally in the ‘90s, American attitudes toward food were starting to go through a big change. “Organic” was no longer a word only associated with hippies on communes left over from the Sixties. Restaurants that innovated beyond endlessly replicating “classic” fine dining fare started to spread across the country, and chefs of my generation realized that what we hated growing up wasn’t the vegetable, it was the preparation. These days, the three vegetables that I most hated as a kid are among my favorites: roasted beets. caramelized Brussels sprouts, and fried riced cauliflower.

My love of and history with Chinese-American cuisine is a subject for another day, but for now, I’ll ask that you accept my belief that fried rice deserves a place beside apple pie, pizza, and fried chicken as an American comfort food, and my love of comfort food runs deep. But as I’ve moved into my 40s, I’ve had to be a little more selective about how often I spend my calorie budget on my favorite foods. I had seen other chefs using cauliflower as a “starch replacement”, mostly to produce low-carb versions of comfort foods like mashed potatoes.  That’s where the inspiration came from to make Fried Rice from “riced” cauliflower. Because I wanted this dish to elicit the same feelings as traditional Fried Rice does, I knew I had some experimenting to do in the kitchen.

Imagine a large garlic press with holes roughly the size of cooked rice grains, and you’ve got the obscure kitchen utensil known as a ricer. Its most common use is to make dreamily smooth and fluffy mashed potatoes. For our fried riced cauliflower, I used the inner core of the cauliflower (the part left over after you cut off the florets), lightly steamed it, pressed it through the ricer, and then substituted it for the white rice. Otherwise, I didn’t make any other changes to the recipe for our fried rice. The result was better than I expected.  The same flavor, a slightly softer texture, and just as filling. Plus, the riced cauliflower cut the calories in half and reduced the carbohydrates by 75%.

It was too good not to share, so we added it to the menu at Mama Fu’s in the Fall of 2016. Fried Riced Cauliflower has grown  has grown steadily in popularity since then, but I still talk to regular guests every week who haven’t tried it.  We even have it as a catering option for large groups! They see the word “cauliflower” and run the other way — maybe because they, too, have childhood memories of it standing between them and a scoop of ice cream. I’m on a mission to convince people to face their childhood nemesis, and to realize that times (and cauliflower) have changed. We’ve grown up, and we can be friends with cauliflower now.  Let me show you. Come in and try some today and see how good this option can be!

Chef James

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