Last Thanksgiving, after much reply-all-ing — and many quality hours spent with Sam Sifton’s manuscript for Thanksgiving, How to Cook it Well — the menu my mom, dad, sister, brother, Andy, and I came up with for the big feast was the following:
Mom’s Classic Herb-Roasted Turkey
Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Shallots
Three-Pepper Sausage Cornbread Stuffing (from Thanksgiving, by Sam Sifton)
Roasted Cauliflower with Anchovy Breadcrumbs (ibid)
Butternut Squash with Sage Butter (ibid)
Mashed Potatoes (ibid)
Mom’s Sweet Potato Casserole with Pecans and Mandarin Oranges
Chocolate Pudding Pie with Whipped Cream
Hominy Grill’s Buttermilk Pie
Maple-Bourbon Pecan Pie
As usual, my brother would bring the snacks — some goodies from Zabar’s — and my father would be in charge of the wine. I emailed the finalized line-up to everyone for official sign-off. Except I left out one very important word in the cauliflower dish.
I left out the word “anchovy.”
Why? I find there are two kinds of people in this world: People who understand the kind of umami blast an anchovy imparts to a dish, and people who see the word “anchovy” and think only of greasy, smelly, peel-back tins of castor-oil fishiness. (Put it this way: It’s the kind of ingredient my mother might call… interesting.) I sat squarely in camp two until about a decade ago when my friend and coworker Pilar pitched a three-page story to our editor about how anchovies are the secret to making everything taste better. (The response: “I think we better write the garlic story first.”)
In any event, I was happy to have Sifton validate my covert anchovy operation in the headnote of the cauliflower recipe. This is what he wrote:
“It is important to note that this dish does not have an anchovy flavor. Indeed, there is no reason ever to tell anyone who eats this dish that there are anchovies in it. The taste is merely salty and rich — and reflects beautifully off the sweet, creamy taste of the cauliflower beneath its slightly crunchy breadcrumb topping.”
To which I will add that the dish was a true showstopper…amidst a bounty of showstoppers. After one forkful I decided this was the recipe that was most deserving of side dish stomach real estate. My brother-in-law Nick — some day we will write about his great, if bizarre, love of cauliflower — looked up mid-bite and asked “What is in this?” (We didn’t answer.) At least four-sixths of the under-10 set around the table had a helping without a complaint. Yes, this one was destined to be a keeper. The only downside of no one being turned off by the anchovies was that no one was turned off by the anchovies…so I couldn’t go back for seconds.
Roasted Cauliflower with Breadcrumbs that May or May Not Contain Anchovies
From Thanksgiving: How to Cook it Well, by Sam Sifton
2 heads cauliflower
8 to 10 fresh sage leaves, roughly chopped
Zest of 2 lemons
2 teaspoons sugar
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly-ground black pepper to taste
For the anchovy breadcrumbs:
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
8 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
3 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
1 shallot, peeled and diced
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1. Preheat oven to 400°F. Break cauliflower into florets and toss in a bowl with sage, lemon zest, sugar, and olive oil. Season with salt and pepper and spread out on a large baking sheet. Place in oven and cook until tender and golden, approximately 20 to 25 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, prepare breadcrumbs. Heat olive oil in a saute pan set over medium heat. When oil shimmers add the anchovies, garlic, shallot, and breadcrumbs. Cook for 5 to 7 minutes until golden.
3. In a large bowl, toss together cauliflower and breadcrumbs and serve on a warmed platter.