Atypical comfort food, but Central Provisions’ ras el hanout cauliflower provides comfort nonetheless

Already that Saturday, I had ransacked three specialty grocers in search of ras el hanout. There remained just one option: the Upper Delaware Valley’s lone spice shop, located a mere 55 miles out of my way. I grabbed my keys and risked it.

It was the summer of 2015, and I was determined to track down the ingredients I needed to recreate a dish I had eaten a few weeks prior at Central Provisions.

“Roz who?” the clerk asked, lowering her glasses. I tried spelling out the name of the ingredient I was after. She shook her head. “I’m sure we don’t have that. What does the ‘L’ stand for?” she asked.

“Never mind. Thanks for your time,” I replied.

By that point, I was too exhausted to deliver my spiel about the North African spice blend, and how “ras el hanout” varies from place-to-place but usually winds up as a cumin, coriander and warm-spice mixture compounded from the best products in a spice-seller’s inventory.

Instead, I slumped back to my car. In the parking lot, I placed an online order with Morton & Bassett and started the countdown until delivery day.

That year, I was in the middle of a disorderly life transition that would bring me back to Portland permanently. I knew the relocation would consume the better part of a year, but I couldn’t wait for it to be over. Some days, I’d congratulate myself on being such a realist and for not growing too impatient with delays. But anyone who came to my house for a meal then would tell you the real truth: Maine was always on my mind … and on my dinner table.

My attempts to reproduce favorite restaurant dishes from Portland, Vinalhaven and Rockland offered a culinary anchor point, a link to a life that – for an agonizing year – always felt just slightly out of reach.

But take a bite of my riff on the original Aurora Provisions’ blueberry crumble pie, and, for a moment, it was easy to imagine that all the convoluted details of the move were sorted out: no more decks to refinish, no vans to rent, no real estate agents launching drones from my rooftop. For the duration of that slice, I might fool myself into believing I was enjoying an afternoon snack on a stroll through the West End.

I found similar comfort in assembling roasted cauliflower, torn mint leaves and fried garbanzo beans into something resembling what I had eaten at Central Provisions.

Luckily for me, that cauliflower stuck around long enough for me to learn a few of its secrets. Every visit to Portland offered another tasting opportunity to help me refine the loose interpretations I concocted from 350 miles away. Lord knows, I needed every additional clue I could acquire.

My first attempt was a write-off: too much matchstick-sliced apple and not enough acid. My next try saw me burn my fried chickpeas, leading me to the decision that I’d outsource that task, going forward. Yet other versions were undercooked, overcooked, too salty from an excess of feta, too minty, and worst of all, the wrong kind of minty – I dubbed the one made with peppermint leaves, “toothpaste cauliflower.” But eventually, around Thanksgiving, I grew confident enough to put together a passable plate of ras-el-hanout-spiced cauliflower. I even served it alongside that year’s turkey and stuffing.

EVOLUTION OF A DISH

Chef/owner Chris Gould described to me how Central Provisions’ cauliflower “originally came on (the menu) for about ‘a minute’ in 2015 as cauliflower à la plancha with Aleppo pepper and dried cherries.” As well-received as it was, it only became a fixture on the menu when Gould and his team recalibrated the inspirations for the dish, re-interpreting the flavors through the perspective of Moroccan or Algerian spicing.

“With traditional ras el hanout, you’ve got a blend that utilizes local spices. It’s the best spices from a region like North Africa,” Gould explained. “For our version, it came together when we added spices from our own region, here. There’s anise hyssop and anise hyssop flowers. I start with about 20 pounds of raw flowers from my own garden and dry them to three to four pounds every year. Plus there are rose hips in there which are obviously very local. It’s very much our own spices in our own spice blend.”

Those New-England-specific aromas and flavors are part of the reason why, after making its menu debut nearly seven years ago, the warm-spiced cauliflower has never completely disappeared from Central Provisions’ menu.

Gould sprinkled a few of these evergreen, stable favorites across his restaurant’s list of small plates. For the five years before the pandemic, these dishes represented landmarks to orient diners: frothy, sabayon-esque farm eggs with Standard Baking sourdough, brown-butter-crisped suckling pig, Prosecco by the glass, and yes, the cauliflower.

“CP is a place that people come back to. And as much as we change the menu there all the time, there are things that people expect to see every time when they come back,” Gould said. “Like that cauliflower. In almost seven years, we’ve probably sold 10,000 of them. Probably more than that, honestly. People really like to have something familiar.”

When the pandemic closed the restaurant for much of 2020, Gould and his wife and business partner Paige Gould tested out a few popup dining ideas before deciding to bite the bullet and translate their dynamic menu into the language of takeout. But they always knew that a few dishes were compulsory keepers.

“We turned our bone marrow toast into a grilled cheese, suckling pig became a Cubano sandwich, and the cauliflower got converted into a vegetarian wrap,” Chris Gould said. “We use fried chickpeas in the regular version of that dish, so we basically took some out and made them into a hummus spread and made wraps out of pizza dough from (the Goulds’ other Portland restaurant) Tipo. Rolled them out thin, baked them in the oven. They took about nine seconds. We’d put them in, spin them around, take them out and stack them to let them steam like tortillas.”

After several months of serving sandwiches and wraps as Central Sandwiches & Provisions, the Goulds were able to reopen when state restrictions loosened. The addition of an extra 30% capacity on the enormous new deck certainly made the prospect more appealing, but it also created new complications.

“Once spring was over, it was apparent that we’d be able to do inside dining and seating on the huge deck,” Chris Gould said. “But we had to figure out a way to streamline. We have a 30-40% larger restaurant, but the kitchen is the same size as it always was. Plus staffing is a huge challenge, not just for us but all restaurants. We needed less ‘touches’ on the pickup side. We had to change things from all à la minute to more on the prep side, more done in advance.”

With that, the ras el hanout cauliflower was reincarnated once again, this time as a spice-forward filled pasta dish. “It’s basically a cauliflower-purée-and-cheese agnolotti,” Chris Gould said. “We also pan-fry some of the florets with garlic, shallots and some feta so it emulsifies into a feta-and-white-wine sauce with the pasta water. We plate it on top of a ras el hanout tomato sauce. It still gets raw apple and of course fresh mint and parsley from my garden and lemon zest to finish. It’s different, but it still highlights what we do.”

The flavor profile of Central Provisions longstanding dish, ras el hanout cauliflower, has been applied to a pasta dish. Photo by Kari Herer

AN HONEST RENDITION

Like many of us, I have caught myself frequently slipping into nostalgia for places, people and foods over the past 18 months. At the start of the pandemic, I’d go out of my way to avoid anything that might trigger those feelings. But more recently, I’ve been trying to embrace those emotions, recognizing them for what they are: a way to connect to a remembered world that is both tantalizingly close and devastatingly far.

I can pinpoint a shift in my attitude to this February. The culprit isn’t hard to guess – a fried cauliflower wrap from Central Sandwich & Provisions. As stopgaps go, it was a terrific one, and I hoped it would tide me over until Chris Gould’s now-famous original dish returned. Then last month, when I tasted the new feta-cauliflower agnolotti with ras el hanout tomato sauce, I once again caught the silhouette of a dearly missed old friend.

In many ways, those evocative bites reminded me of my dogged, uncertain attempts to recreate the original Central Provisions cauliflower dish in 2015. They’re not precisely what I long for, but they vibrate on the same frequency.

Chris Gould understands: “People know that flavor profile, they like it and it resonates with them. It gives them a little comfort when they can come in, see it and say, ‘I had this before and know it’s going to be good.’ ”

I get it. So I’ve returned to where my journey started: the kitchen. These days, there’s a Gould-certified recipe for the Central Provisions cauliflower online (improbably published on CultureCheeseMag.com). But as good as it is, I’ll stick with my own quick-to-assemble, reverse-engineered version. I know it’s not everything I crave, but its imperfection feels more honest. There’s history in those approximations and imprecisions, and more than that, a comforting familiarity that leaves me wanting more of the original.

Andrew Ross has written about food and dining in New York and the United Kingdom. He and his work have been featured on Martha Stewart Living Radio and in The New York Times. He is the recipient of four recent Critic’s Awards from the Maine Press Association. Contact him at: [email protected]
Twitter: @AndrewRossME

Andrew Ross’ take on Central Provisions’ Ras El Hanout Cauliflower with Mint, Apple and Feta. Photo by Andrew Ross

Ras El Hanout Cauliflower with Mint, Apple and Feta

Dine Out columnist Andrew Ross modeled his recipe after a dish he tasted at Central Provisions.

Serves 4 as a side dish

1 large cauliflower, broken into florets
¼ cup mild olive oil or neutral oil, plus another 3 tablespoons for the dressing
Kosher salt and pepper
1 medium or large red apple, unpeeled (Paula Red, Honeycrisp or Macoun all work well)
1 lemon, zested and juiced
2-3 tablespoons ras el hanout (preferably Central Provisions’ own blend, $12/bottle, or the local Gryffon Ridge blend from Litchfield, approximately $6. Avoid Frontier Co-op ras el hanout; it contains no floral components.)
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
Pinch ground fennel seed
3 tablespoons sugar, agave or honey
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
3 cloves garlic, minced
¼ red onion or 1 large shallot, minced finely
About 30 fresh mint leaves, approximately ½ cup, plus a few for garnish
About 30 fresh Italian parsley leaves, approximately ½ cup, plus a few for garnish
2/3 cup unsalted chickpea snacks (preferably Biena brand. Note: if unsalted chickpeas are not available, you can use the salted variety and eliminate additional salt from the dressing.)
6-8 ounces feta cheese, crumbled (preferably Winter Hill Farms’ feta)

Preheat the oven to 425 F.

Toss the cauliflower florets in the ¼ cup oil. Season with salt and freshly cracked black pepper and roast until the cauliflower is dark brown and tender, flipping the florets once halfway through cooking, 30-35 minutes total.

While the cauliflower is roasting, slice the apple into matchsticks, approximately 1/8” tall, and submerge the matchsticks in cold water with about a tablespoon of lemon juice added to keep them from browning.

Toast the ras el hanout, Aleppo pepper and fennel seed in a dry pan over medium-low heat until fragrant, 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and combine with the sugar, vinegar, garlic, a few pinches of kosher salt and the remaining 3 tablespoons of oil. Whisk together or use and immersion blender to emulsify the dressing. Add the minced onion and stir to combine.

When the cauliflower is cool enough to handle, toss it gently in enough ras el hanout dressing to lightly coat. Remove the sliced apple from the acidulated water and add it, along with the 1/2 cup each mint and parsley leaves, chickpeas, feta and another drizzle of the ras el hanout dressing. Toss very gently to coat without breaking up the feta further. Check the seasoning and add salt and pepper to taste.

Transfer to a platter and sprinkle with the lemon zest and the remaining mint and parsley.


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