Crispy baked cauliflower and crunchy cashews smothered in a spicy kung pao sauce — this delicious dish is both hearty and healthy! Try our kung pao cauliflower as a light appetizer or serve it over rice for an unforgettable dinner!
We’re always looking for new ways to create more plant-forward dinners in our kitchen and this kung pao cauliflower has recently become our absolute favorite vegetarian meal. Perfectly crispy and covered in a mouthwatering sauce, I can safely say that this cauliflower dish is better than any kung pao takeout I’ve ever had!
a vegetarian take on kung pao chicken
Kung pao chicken, which is sometimes transcribed as gong bao, originated in the Sichuan province of China. Although the story behind its creation is disputed, many believe the dish was named after an imperial bureaucrat who lived during the 1800s: Ding Baozhen whose appointment title was gong bao. This loose association with the imperial dynasties was enough to deem the chicken dish “politically incorrect” during the cultural revolution. As such, it was renamed as chicken with chiles until it was able to reclaim the title kung pao chicken in the 1980s.
Somewhere in the fascinating history of kung pao chicken, the dish made its way to the States where it can still be found on chinese restaurant menus across the nation. The westernized version, however, often bears little resemblance to the original dish and can sometimes be overly sweet and syrupy. The recipe we have for you today relies more heavily on the traditional sichuan flavors by using dried red chiles and sichuan peppercorn powder to season the dish. That being said, I do admittedly add a bit more sauce than might be traditional in order to appease my american palette. But rest assured — this sauce is perfectly spiced and not overwhelming in the least!
The last major departure from the original chicken dish is that we’re not using chicken at all, but rather crispy baked cauliflower! Cauliflower is so versatile and can take on so many different flavors. But more than that, it’s also hearty and incredibly satisfying which makes it an absolutely perfect meat substitute for this dish. Our kung pao cauliflower turned out so well that we’re already dreaming of other ways to use the crispy nuggets in our other favorite meat dishes!
crispy baked cauliflower
I always imagined making cauliflower that could take on a delicious sauce and retain its crispy exterior would require more effort that it was worth. Oh how wrong I was! After finally deciding to give the process a try and experimenting with a few different methods, I’ve found that it’s decidedly simple to get the perfect cauliflower. And best of all? It only requires three simple steps!
1. Coat the cauliflower in batter. The batter here is made by mixing together flour, cornstarch, garlic powder, salt, water and olive oil. Sifting the flour and cornstarch will make it easier to make the mixture smooth. But honestly, I generally just toss the ingredients together and stir the mixture for a little longer and it’s always smooth enough. If the batter is difficult to work with, you can add a bit more water, but keep in mind that it should be quite thick. To coat the cauliflower, dip each floret into the prepared batter and let the excess drip off.
2. Sprinkle a bit of panko on top. I find it really is best here to just sprinkle the panko all over the battered cauliflower. Rolling the cauliflower through the breadcrumbs will result in a lumpy mess. And you don’t need to completely smother the cauliflower in panko; a light dusting will provide the perfect amount of crispiness!
3. Bake to perfection. The cauliflower should be baked for about 25-30 minutes at 425 F (220 C). You’ll know the florets are ready when they’re crispy and the tops are slightly brown. And there’s no need to flip or stir the cauliflower halfway through — just make sure that they’re placed in a single layer with about an inch (2.5 cm) between them so they have a chance to get super crunchy!
kung pao sauce
And now onto the mouthwatering kung pao sauce! This recipe makes enough sauce to perfectly coat one medium-sized head of cauliflower. We always serve our kung pao cauliflower with rice and find that it’s the perfect balance for us. But if you’re looking for a batch of sauce that’s large enough to smother your rice in, you’ll definitely want to double the sauce!
There are two parts to making the rest of the kung pao dish — sauteing your aromatics and then adding the sauce. I like to start by preparing the sauce to have it ready as soon as my chiles and garlic are toasted. The sauce is made of soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, hoisin, sesame oil and water. Simply mix everything together and set aside!
stir fry it all together!
The stir fry portion of the dish may require a few ingredients you’re unfamiliar with — dried red chiles and sichuan peppercorn powder. Sichuan peppercorns have a pleasant tingling, slightly numbing effect that can take the edge off of spicy peppers. Of course you can also always grind your own sichuan peppercorns for a more intense flavor, but we always keep a bit of peppercorn powder on hand for weeknight dinners. As for the dried peppers, they can vary widely in spice level. And depending on your spice tolerance, you can either leave them all whole or chop a few into several pieces for a bit more spice.
To finish the dish, you’ll start by toasting the dried chiles in a bit of olive oil. Take care not to burn them or they’ll get a rather bitter taste; the chiles will only need a few minutes of toasting on each side. Next you can add in your peppercorn powder, garlic, the white parts of the green onions and cashews (or peanuts if you prefer). Cook until fragrant, stir in the sauce that you mixed up earlier and that’s it! Once the the cauliflower is baked, just add it to the pan and coat it with the delicious sauce.
Looking for more vegetarian mains? Give these a try!
- misir wat | ethiopian lentil stew
- ricotta and pumpkin pierogi + brown butter sage sauce
- thai curry soup with mushrooms
- crispy tofu spring roll noodle bowl
crispy baked cauliflower
- cauliflower 1 head
- flour ½ c (60 g)
- cornstarch ¼ c (30 g)
- garlic powder ½ tsp
- water ½ c (120 ml)
- olive oil 1 tbsp
- salt to taste
- panko breadcrumbs 1 c (80 g)
kung pao sauce
- low sodium soy sauce 4 tbsp
- rice vinegar 2 tbsp
- sugar 2 tbsp
- hoisin 1 tbsp
- cornstarch 2 tsp
- sesame oil 1 tsp
- water ½ c (120 ml)
- Preheat the oven to 425 F (220 C) and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- Cut the cauliflower into bite-sized florets.
- Mix together the batter for the cauliflower (flour, cornstarch, garlic powder, water, olive oil and salt) and stir until smooth.
- Dip each cauliflower floret into the batter and let the excess drip off. Sprinkle panko on top to cover.
- Place the cauliflower on the prepared baking sheet and bake for 25-30 minutes or until crispy and slightly browned.
- While the cauliflower is baking, prepare the kung pao sauce. Combine the soy sauce, rice vinegar, sugar, hoisin, cornstarch, sesame oil and water. Stir until smooth and set aside.
- Dice the white part of the green onions to use in the stir fry and set the green part aside to garnish. You can leave the chiles whole if you prefer a milder dish or you can cut several into pieces for a spicier version.
- Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the dried red chiles and cook, stirring occasionally, until toasted and fragrant (about three minutes). Be careful not to burn!
- Add the peppercorn powder, cashews, minced garlic and white parts of the green onions. Reduce heat to medium-low and cook for another three minutes, stirring often.
- Add the kung pao sauce to the skillet and cook until it thickens slightly (about one minute). Increase the heat if necessary.
- Mix the crispy baked cauliflower with the sauce and garnish with green onions.
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