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Bland - some thoughts and a recipe

"Bland: lacking strong features or characteristics and therefore uninteresting. Unseasoned, mild-tasting, or insipid." Oxford Languages

A couple of days ago I cooked this dish for dinner. It's Jamie Oliver's Cauliflower cheese pasta and it was the second time I had made it. I may have mentioned it before. I made it because I had some cauliflower. Cauliflower is relatively cheap at the moment, and it's pretty flexible in terms of what you can do with it. Particularly these days. Cauliflower is a fashionable item and chefs seem to love exploring all the things you could possibly do with it. I don't think I've seen it in a dessert as yet, but I bet somebody somewhere has had a red hot go at it.

So I couldn't resist - and looked - and found. There are heaps out there, mostly associated with chocolate, some looking absolutely revolting some not. Here are a few of the prettier ones:

But back to Jamie. My recipe is included in Jamie's book 7 Ways in which he gives 7 ways of cooking the 18 ingredients which, statistically, the British buy most. I imagine the list is similar here. Actually it's probably not quite accurate to say the things most bought, because I think that would include bread and bananas for a start - and they are not in here. He actually describes his list as 'Hero ingredients that just kept appearing' in the statistical lists. So it's things like eggs, sausages, chicken breast, salmon fillet, avocado, broccoli ... Hand-picked by Jamie because he could think of interesting things to do with them probably, but also commonly bought. It's one of his better books I think.

Back to cauliflower cheese pasta and our meal. I made it because when I had made it before I really liked it. I knew that David hadn't been so keen, but I thought that I do enough dish selection that respect his tastes, that I would ignore his unenthusiasm. Besides if you served somebody's very favourite dish day after day or even week after week, I'm pretty sure that eventually you would get fed up with it.

Re the pasta, indeed he had not changed his opinion, pronouncing it 'bland'. Which to my mind is not active dislike, just not favourite, so I shall continue to make it every now and then because I thought it was delicious. In a way this is a bit weird considering my childhood dislike of milk and cooked cheese. In fact I don't think cauliflower cheese itself would have been a favourite dish. Interestingly it's still not a real favourite although I do make it from time to time, often with the addition of tastier things such as bacon, or tomatoes, or lots of herbs.

For the pasta recipe you whiz your cauliflower up with some garlic, onion and milk though before mixing with your pasta and topping with a gorgeously crispy, crunchy mix of more garlic, breadcrumbs and the chopped up cauliflower leaves. It's sublime. Well I think so. In the video below Jamie says he was trying for a 'clean, simple and sweet cauliflower flavour in a pale white sauce'. For white is beautiful too, particularly if it is touched with a little brown and green colour. As he says cauliflower cheese is a winner in the comfort food stakes, as is pasta. Put them together and you have win win. So have a look at him making it.

He actually has another version of the same dish shown here, which he devised for his series on food for under £1 a portion. Something that is increasingly being done by various chefs - and the magazines - over here. Interestingly I'm thinking his budget version is actually more expensive than his original version, because he uses leeks rather than onions, and adds nuts and dried thyme to the crunchy topping. He also does nothing with the cauliflower leaves, slicing the green part of the leek instead of the leaves for the gremolata. So it's not quite as much of a 'waste not, want not' kind of dish. The nuts and the thyme might give it a little more taste I suppose, and it's certainly worth giving it a go - when leeks are less than almost $3.00 each. I notice that the supermarket magazines here seem to aim for less than $5.00 a serve, which is a whole lot more than £1 - currently the exchange rate would make the equivalent $1.86, so Jamie is being rather more helpful to the extremely poor. Maybe inflation here is higher than in the UK. Maybe he is just being more realistic as to what a really poor person can afford.

But that's an irrelevant aside. The fact that he has played with this recipe a tiny bit, makes me think that you could play with it rather more significantly - an obvious variation would be to do the same thing but with broccoli - or any other suitable vegetable - one you could poach and then blitz in a liquidiser. This one featured fennel.

It also reminded me of that recipe I made a while back - I wrote about it on a post called Three, maybe four cheeses and cream - Tagliatelle with three cheeses - the version shown here is not the one I made because it has some kind of greenery in it, but you get the idea. There was even less in Beverley Sutherland-Smith's recipe - just cheese and pasta and cream, but it gave me that same sense of supreme satisfaction, and warmth. Ultimate comfort food I suppose.

In Jamie's £1 version he used a potato masher to break up the cauliflower and leek which is possibly an acknowledgement that the poor might not have a food processor or a liquidiser, although he actually couldn't resist diving in with a stick blender in the end. Aiming for that silky sauce.

Yes he does use the word 'silky'. It's one of those words that could also mean 'bland', like 'delicate' or 'subtle'. It's all a matter of perception isn't it? One man's bland is another man's 'subtle' - 'sophisticated' even.

So I was very interested to read an article by Amy Fleming in The Guardian entitled Changing tastes: food and aging for I'm sure both the original cauliflower cheese and Jamie's two versions fall into the category of comfort food - the category that includes all those foods that evoke a nostalgia for home and childhood. It seems that:

"from the word go, baby brains start linking flavours with experiences and so our most deeply entrenched association with eating is that it is comforting. Not just for satisfying a need for fuel, but in an all-encompassing way." Amy Fleming/The Guardian

Babies have many more taste buds than an adult, many, many more than an aging couple like David and myself. They may even experience synesthesia - that experience of mixing the senses up, so that, for example you might see music as colour. Therefore, it is suggested, they avoid the things that are spicier, tastier, because it just too much. Bland is comfort - and love - and apparently vanilla as Chris Lakehurst - some sort of specialist in the field says:

"Why do you think vanilla ice-cream is the world's best-selling flavour? It is the closest adult food to breast milk ... Mother's milk ... tastes vanillic."

Although in a slightly contradictory way:

"umami, the immensely moreish taste that has been synthesised in the form of monosodium glutamate, is abundant in breast milk." Amy Fleming/The Guardian

I guess the negative side of comfort food - i.e. bland, nursery food is that a 'bland diet' can be prescribed for those that are having real trouble with their digestive system - ulcers and the like:

"A bland diet includes foods that are soft, not very spicy, and low in fiber. If you are on a bland diet, you should not eat spicy, fried, or raw foods. You should not drink alcohol or drinks with caffeine in them." Medline Plus

Indeed I seem to remember that at one time my father had a duodenal ulcer and had to eat very plain food about which he, admittedly good humouredly, complained. These days I suspect there would be many more suggestions for making such a diet more appetising - as per cauliflower cheese pasta. Besides the food photographers are so good at making food, even very plain food, look good these days that you might get sucked in by the appearance:

"Maybe if it looked appetizing, it would be appetizing?" Amy Fleming/The Guardian

Yes - white is beautiful. Bland? I don't think so. You can have too much taste of the cauliflower in cauliflower cheese - but not in Jamie's pasta version. Try it next time you are wanting something soothing, and comforting - yes bland.

Bland is good.


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