Cauliflower Mac & Cheese


On my recent trip to Shanghai, I took the high speed rail to Shaoxing, a city that is famous for its century old local opera, which is struggling, and for its traditional wine making, which is thriving.  Such is the state of affairs, sadly.  Shaoxing cooking wine, which I use in almost all of my Asian flavored meat and fish recipes, has its origin from there. The ancient city was the seat of the Yue Kingdom (770 BC-476 BC) and the once popular local opera was named after the kingdom – Yue Opera (越剧).  


Traditional opera stage where the audience often watch from their boats


Government subsidized opera troupe performing for free for the peasants

I appreciated the way Shaoxing was evocative of a past era and snapped hundreds of pictures of its bridges, alleyways and old opera houses.  The visit was so hurried that after I left Shaoxing, many of the images turned into a blur in my mind. One image of a shabby and dilapidated Christian church, however, continued to linger, ever more in focus. 


The Chinese characters stated “Christian Church”

I came upon this church in one of the maze like alleyways where only the old and poor had stayed behind.  It was unexpected, out of place, and mysteriously touching. It moved me the way Vatican City, with all its wealth and power, did not. I tried to imagine the man who first build the church here some 90 years ago.  Was he a foreign missionary?  Was he a local believer?  What drove him to erect this house of worship in an obscure alleyway?  I tried to imagine the worshippers.  Who were they?  In a city with a long and rich Buddhist tradition, what brought them here?  According to my guide, this had been an operating church until last year when it moved to a slightly larger and newer location.

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This church reminded me of the last passage from one of my all time favorite books Gilead  a poignantly beautiful story told as a letter from an old priest to his young son: “To me it seems rather Christlike to be as unadorned as this place is, as little regarded.  I can’t help imagining that you will leave sooner or later, and it’s fine if you have done that, or you mean to do it.  This whole town does look like whatever hope becomes after it begins to weary a little, then weary a little more.  But hope deferred is still hope.  I love this town.  I think sometimes of going into ground here as a last wild gesture of love — I too will smolder away the time until the great and the general incandescence.”

What’s the connection between the story and the cauliflower mac & cheese?  Nothing, I guess.  I’m simply sharing with you where my mind wanders to at this late hour, after all the dishes have been washed and dried and the house has quieted down.



Cauliflower Mac & Cheese


1 cup milk of choice

1 tablespoon coconut flour

1/4 teaspoon or more salt

A dash freshly ground black pepper

1 bag (8-oz.) shredded 2% extra sharp Cheddar cheese

2 to 3 tbsp shaved parmesan cheese

1/4 cup panko or oat bran

1/4 teaspoon ground turmeric

A few dashes of ground cumin

A few dashes of Coriander

1 head cauliflower, florets only

3/4 onion, sliced

2 teaspoon olive oil



Preheat oven to 425°.

Mix coconut flour, salt, black pepper, and other spices, and 1/2 of cheddar in a sauce pan, whisk in the milk.  Cook on medium low heat and whisk until smooth and thickened.  About 5 minutes.

Saute onion with olive oil until soft.

Cut cauliflower into florets and steam until tender.  Pour the cooked onion and cauliflower in a slightly greased 12×9 baking dish. Pour in the cheese and milk mixture.

Evenly sprinkle the remaining shredded cheddar cheese and the shaved parmesan cheese, topped with panko.

Bake at 425° for 30 minutes or until golden and bubbly.

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Try the recipe of Tofu Mac & Cheese, too!

Venetian Cauliflower


In her book , Mary Oliver wrote about the peculiar life force that we call habit, and how it gives shape to our inner lives, “In the shapeliness of a life, habit plays its sovereign role… The hours are appointed and named… Life’s fretfulness is transcended. The different and the novel are sweet, but regularity and repetition are also teachers… And if you have no ceremony, no habits, which may be opulent or may be simple but are exact and rigorous and familiar, how can you reach toward the actuality of faith, or even a moral life, except vaguely? The patterns of our lives reveal us. Our habits measure us. Our battles with our habits speak of dreams yet to become real.”

Daily cooking has become a habit, a form of self realization, or an addiction.  Even on the days that I don’t have to cook, I will make something — a special after school snack, a healthy dessert or a fruit salad — just to mess around in the kitchen for a while. In the methodical preparation of food, life’s focus is simply on flavors, aromas and colors.  All other concerns fall away and turn into a haze of steams.  As I mix different spices, I conjure up faraway locales and the lives I could have lived in those places — some I have visited, and others I’ve only dreamed about. 

My need for daydreaming and quiet solitude, which used to be fulfilled only by reading, is now satisfied in the kitchen as well.  I can enjoy the pleasure of my alone time while being of service to my family.  I can have my cake and eat it too. 

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Venetian Cauliflower


1 cauliflower

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 red onion, finely sliced

Pinch of saffron, crumbled

⅛ teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground coriander

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

1/4 teaspoon turmeric

A dash paprika

Pinch of red pepper flakes

Salt and pepper

½ teaspoon lemon zest

½ heaping cup raisins

¼ cup almond slices

1/4 cup water or chicken broth

Note from Chef Chen: This may look like a long list of ingredients, but it is actually a very simple dish to make.  I just put a generous amount of my favorite spices together with caramelized onion and raisons to cook the cauliflower.



Cut cauliflower in half from top to bottom, then remove the core. With a paring knife, cut into very small florets of equal size. Blanch florets in boiling water for 2 minutes. Cool in cold water and drain.

Put olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, onion and cook, stirring, until softened and lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add saffron, cinnamon, coriander seeds, cumin, turmeric, paprika and red pepper. Season well with salt and pepper.

Add lemon zest, raisins and cauliflower florets. Toss with wooden spoons to distribute. Add water or broth. Cover with a lid and cook for about 5 minutes more, until cauliflower is tender. Transfer to a serving dish and sprinkle with almond slices. Serve warm or at room temperature.


Adapted from: