I went to Nantucket last weekend and the thing that always catches me off guard—besides the unwritten island uniform of Nantucket Reds and navy blue blazers—is how good the food is.
Holding a group of vacationers captive, fully surrounded by water, might encourage some slack at dinnertime. But most restaurant prospects are far from grim.
Raw oysters come cold and briny, as though they were shucked straight from the Atlantic. Lobster rolls arrive generously proportioned. Fried clams appear plump and juicy, without the bits tasting of iron and shoe leather that occasionally haunt the mollusk.
The problem with these well-intentioned establishments is that I sometimes leave hungry. One evening my four-ounce short rib arrived with a silhouette of sticky rice that I can only assume was modeled after a golf ball. The next night, I preempted a pasta dish with two appetizers, and still needed to request an order of bread. There were also multiple meals during which my plate was proactively cleared after coming back from the bathroom.
I was often quite hungry and paid a good deal of money to feel slightly less so.
Admittedly, my perspective might be skewed. When Brett and I went to Babu Ji in New York City, we paid the equivalent of one market price Nantucket lobster roll plus a beer to be happily destroyed by a tasting menu of pan-Asian cuisine.
And while you could argue it is easy to offer fancy proteins like shellfish and short rib and please people, it is a much harder sell to cast a cruciferous vegetable in positive light. This is where Colonel Tso comes in.
Inspired by General Tso’s chicken, the dish offers a plateful of nostalgia while smartly swapping in cauliflower for suspicious and ubiquitous poultry. Why Babu Ji trades a general for a colonel I am not certain. It does not deserve the slight in rank.
Sure the dish will please vegetarians, but I believe it will please anyone who likes the occasional fried thing or who bristles at the thought of leaving a restaurant without a slight postprandial paunch. Colonel Tso’s cauliflower was one of the courses we were served at Babu Ji and the recipe holds true to memory.
The vegetable is crispy and addictive, even before you add the sweet and spicy sauce. I would argue you could leave off the mahogany coating altogether if you have post-traumatic associations with late night Chinese takeout, but my recommendation is to toss at least half the mixture in sauce, taste the difference, and then decide for yourself. It is hard to go wrong when it comes to a big bowl of fried bits, made even better by the rebuttal of cauliflower as an undesirable.
Perhaps I do not like to be bridled. I might be a little too coarse—or too hungry—for Nantucket. I also really do not like salmon-colored pants on men. And though I appreciate a flamingo-themed rosé brunch with a view of mooring buoys, it is not enough to distract me when my half-eaten plate of fries is prematurely swiped.
At any rate, when flamingos start hanging from the rafters (see below) it is time to flock home. And, with any luck, that home will have something fried waiting.
Colonel Tso’s Cauliflower
- 1 tbsp toasted sesame oil
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 scallions, white and light green parts only, minced (green parts reserved)
- 1 tbsp peeled and minced ginger
- 4 to 5 small dried chiles, minced
- ½ cup hoisin sauce
- ¼ cup rice vinegar
- ¼ cup tamari (or soy sauce)
- 2 tbsp brown sugar
- 2 tbsp cornstarch
- 1½ to 2 quarts peanut or safflower oil (see note)
- ½ cup cornstarch
- ½ cup all-purpose flour
- ½ tsp baking powder
- 1 tbsp garlic powder
- 1 tbsp ground ginger
- 1 tsp dried red pepper flakes
- ½ cup cold water (plus more, as needed)
- ½ cup vodka
- 1 to 2 large cauliflower heads, cut into one-inch florets (see note)