If I had to pick one dish that defined my West Texas upbringing, it would be chicken-fried steak. It was the first real supper I learned how to make on my own, under the guidance of my good-ol’-boy stepdad, Vern, and it was a staple at restaurant visits for many years, even into my Austin college days.
It’s tempting for me to think, “My, how I’ve changed,” but, honestly, I haven’t changed all that much. OK, so I’m not flattening cube steak with a mallet anymore, among other shifts. But I still love the big flavors that go into dishes like chicken-fried steak, and the hearty meal that results from pan-frying something and spooning gravy on top.
I owe the idea for chicken-fried cauliflower to chef Amanda Cohen at New York’s Dirt Candy. She bathes hers in smoke first, while I tend to use smoked paprika or a chili powder to add that touch. And I use miso to do some of the same work the little meaty bits do in the original meat-focused recipe, deepening the flavor of mushrooms for a quick-to-the-table gravy.
One disclaimer: I cannot, for the life of me, imagine serving this to Vern. I don’t think he would appreciate it — or even if he did, I think he’d consider it an appetizer and hope the steak was on the way. But it’s a moot point. After all, I’m not in West Texas anymore.
Chicken-Fried Cauliflower With Miso-Mushroom Gravy
Serve with mashed potatoes and greens, if you like.
Adapted from “Eat Your Vegetables: Bold Recipes for the Single Cook” (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
1 small (1 1/2 pound) head cauliflower
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more as needed
2 large eggs, lightly whisked
1/2 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon ancho chili powder
Vegetable oil, for frying
8 ounces stemmed shiitake mushrooms, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons white miso
2 tablespoons vegetable broth, plus more as needed
Trim the core from the bottom of the cauliflower, but don’t cut it fully from the florets. Cut the cauliflower in half and then each half into 1-inch-thick steaks.
Set the slices (and any leftover trimmed pieces) in a large skillet over medium heat and pour in 1/4 inch of water. Once the water starts to bubble, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and gently steam the cauliflower until it barely starts to feel tender when you pierce it with a fork, 5 to 7 minutes. Use a spatula to carefully transfer the cauliflower steaks and pieces to a plate to cool, then sprinkle them with the salt on both sides.
Put the eggs and flour in separate shallow bowls or plates. Stir the chili powder into the flour along with a little more salt. Dip the cauliflower in egg on both sides, then coat in the flour mixture, using a spoon or your fingers to help cover the cauliflower as completely as possible. (If the cauliflower steaks break up, just coat and fry the pieces.)
Line a baking sheet with a few layers of paper towels, then seat a wire rack over it.
Pour the water out of the skillet; return it to medium-high heat and pour in 1/4 inch of the oil. Once the oil starts to shimmer, gently lay the cauliflower steaks and pieces in the skillet. Fry until they are golden brown and crisp, 2 or 3 minutes. Turn them over and repeat the cooking on the second side. Transfer them to the rack to drain.
Pour off all but a scant teaspoon of the oil in the skillet, then return to medium heat. Add the mushrooms and cook, stirring frequently, until they collapse and start to brown, a few minutes.
Whisk together the miso and broth in a cup until smooth, then stir that mixture into the mushrooms. Add broth as needed to create a pourable gravy, allowing it to heat through.
Divide the cauliflower among individual plates. Spoon the mushroom gravy on top; serve hot.
Nutrition Per serving: 150 calories, 9 g protein, 19 g carbohydrates, 6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 55 mg cholesterol, 660 mg sodium, 5 g dietary fiber, 6 g sugar.