It’s good to be humbled on occasion. At the restaurant, our aim is perfection — a noble but elusive task. We care deeply about the experience of our customers, and we want their experience at Old Tioga Farm to be meaningful and memorable. As a result, we’re constantly trying to hone our craft and improve what we do, driving ourselves crazy in the process.
Hounded by this obsessive pursuit of perfection, occasionally we lose faith in a dish that we once were quite fond of. It happened recently during our dinners on October 22 and 23. We had placed a cauliflower torta (or pie) on the menu, a dish very much in keeping with the fall weather and one in line with our desire to focus more and more on ingredients from our kitchen garden. But our cauliflower was a failure in the garden this year, and what is worse, I had begun to find the pie a bit boring and uninspiring. I nearly removed it from the menu to replace it with a dish I was more excited about. But somehow I didn’t, and the pie remained on the menu. I consoled myself that it was merely an appetizer and not the focus of the evening.
But life has a sense of humor, and the pie was the star of the evening, the favorite course of many of our guests on both nights. It’s a reminder of how subjective taste really is, and how a dish insipid to one can be inspired to another. I’m not sure I’ll be making it again for myself any time soon, but I’m thrilled that it was so popular with guests. I promised several of them the recipe, and here it is:
Cauliflower torta with prosciutto cotto
I take no credit for originality with this recipe. My cooking has been shaped principally by Marcella Hazan, and a number of my recipes come directly from her excellent books, particularly Marcella Cucina. Prosciutto cotto is simply “cooked ham”, though if you can find imported Italian ham it will be much superior to a domestic one. Wegmans sells an Italian roasted ham which will do the job nicely. You can always eliminate the ham for a vegetarian version.
1) Boil or steam one small to medium-sized head of cauliflower (cut into moderate pieces) until tender.
2) When the cauliflower is cool enough to handle, chop or slice it into small pieces, say the diameter of a quarter.
3) Melt some butter in a large pan and saute the cauliflower in the butter for a few minutes until well coated, seasoning with salt and pepper.
4) While the cauliflower is cooking, make a bechamel sauce by melting 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium pan and whisking in 2 tablespoons of flour. Take the pan off heat and very gradually add a cup of milk which has been heated until steaming. At first the mixture will thicken, but as you gradually add more milk, it will thin out and be quite thin at the end. Return it to medium heat, and let it cook, stirring often, until thickened like heavy cream, or perhaps even a bit thicker. Season with a bit of salt.
5) Optionally, dice up about ½ pound of good, plain ham.
6) Combine the cauliflower, ham, 2/3 of the bechamel, and about a cup of grated parmigiano-reggiano. Add two beaten eggs and a small grating of nutmeg (important!). Pour into a pie dish or equivalent, level out, and top with the remaining bechamel and a little more grated cheese.
7) Bake at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes until nicely browned. Serve warm or slightly cooled down.