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Vegan magic: Go nutty for crispy cauliflower bites


Cauliflower bites are served with savory red curry tofu, portabella sushi rolls and bright red sheets of infused watermelon seared on a fiery hot rock.

Perfect for a game day snack or a dinner party appetizer, crispy cauliflower bites are easy-to-make delicious.

In Punta Mita, Mexico, I’m meeting chef Leslie Durso at the Four Season’s Aramara Restaurant to taste the vegan dishes she has created for the hotel’s menus. It’s late in the day and I am hungry so I definitely enjoy the sweet aroma of the crispy cauliflower bites as they come out of the kitchen.

With her blond hair and bright smile, Durso is naturally glamorous. Which makes sense, because before she was a celebrity vegan chef, she was a television star. Wanting to shake up her life, she became a private chef embracing a healthy, plant-based life style. Looking to expand her connections, Durso promotes vegan cuisine as a motivational speaker, as a restaurant consultant, on her web site, on television, YouTube and her social media accounts.

While she told me about her culinary point of view, we feasted on crispy cauliflower bites, savory red curry tofu, portabella sushi rolls and bright red sheets of infused watermelon seared on a fiery hot rock.

Leslie Durso runs the kitchen at the Four Season’s Aramara Restaurant in Punta Mita, Mexico.
Leslie Durso runs the kitchen at the Four Season’s Aramara Restaurant in Punta Mita, Mexico.

Her food is so good, you’ll want to visit the Four Seasons Punta Mita on Mexico’s western coast. Until then, to give you a taste of her cooking in your own home, she offered to share her recipe for sweet-salty-crunchy cauliflower bites.

Crispy Cauliflower Bites

Buy an unblemished head of cauliflower. Use a paring knife to remove any brown spots.

Sambal, sweet soy sauce and Chipotle adobo sauce can be found in many supermarkets’ ethnic sections or in Asian and Latino markets. Agave syrup can be found in health food markets and in many supermarkets.

The sweet chili and BBQ Chipotle sauces may be prepared a few days ahead and refrigerated in air-tight containers. Reserve any leftover sweet chili and BBQ Chipotle sauces to use to season rice or vegetables.

Serves 4

Time to prepare sauces: 30 minutes

Time to prep and cook cauliflower: 30 minutes


1 cauliflower head, enough to make 4 cups of florets, washed, pat dried

1 tablespoon coriander powder

1 tablespoon fennel powder

1 cup cornstarch

1 tablespoon sesame seeds

1 scallion, root end removed, washed, pat dried, thin sliced

Sea Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

4 cups corn oil

Sweet Chili Sauce

1/4 cup Sambal

3/4 cups agave syrup

1 teaspoon lemon juice, preferably freshly squeezed

1 garlic clove, peeled, mashed into a confit

1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt

2 teaspoons corn starch

1/4 teaspoon water

BBQ Chipotle Sauce

1 tablespoon red onion, washed, peeled, small diced

1 garlic cloves, washed, peeled

5 ½ tablespoons Chipotle adobo sauce

3/4 cup white sugar

1/2 teaspoon corn oil

2 1/4 tablespoons ponzu sauce

1 3/4 tablespoons light soy sauce

2 1/4 tablespoons sweet soy sauce

2 cups red wine vinegar

1 3/4 tablespoons tomato ketchup

Tempura Batter

1 cup white flour

1 tablespoon cornstarch

1 ½ cups unflavored seltzer water

Pinch sea salt


Sweet Chili Sauce

Mix together sambal, agave, lemon juice, garlic confit, salt and sesame oil in a small saucepan. Simmer on a medium flame 15 minutes or until thickened. Remove from flame and allow to cool.

Place corn starch in a bowl. Add water, stir to create a slurry, then add cooled sweet chili sauce. Mix well to form a thick sauce. Set aside. Can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated in an air-tight container.

BBQ Chipotle Sauce

Heat a teaspoon of corn oil in a small sauté pan on a medium flame. Sauté onion and garlic in the pan. Stir and sauté until lightly browned. To the caramelized onion-garlic mixture, add chipotle adobe sauce, ponzu, red wine vinegar, ketchup and sweet soy sauce. Cook and stir to blend 15 minutes. Add sugar and stir well to dissolve. Strain sauce, taste and adjust seasoning as needed. Can be prepared a day ahead and refrigerated in an air-tight container.

Tempura Batter

In a medium sized bowl, mix together white flour, cornstarch and sea salt. Slowly add seltzer water, stirring to create a slurry without lumps. Set aside.

Crispy Cauliflower

Trim the cauliflower bites so there is ½”-1” of stem on each floret. Reserve the rest of the cauliflower stems to roast and use in salads or to make vegetable stock.

Toss bite-sized cauliflower pieces in a bowl with salt, pepper, coriander and fennel powder. Set aside.

Place the cup of dry cornstarch in a flat bowl and place next to the tempura batter.

In a large cast iron, carbon steel or deep frying pan, heat 4 cups corn oil over a medium-high heat. Be careful the oil does not smoke. To test the heat of the oil, drop in a 1” length of the green part of a scallion. If the oil bubbles gently and browns the scallion without smoking, the oil is ready.

Work in batches. Place one cup of cauliflower pieces in tempura batter, shake to remove excess and then toss in cornstarch to lightly coat. Carefully drop cauliflower pieces into the heated oil. Separate and turn frequently so they brown evenly on all sides. Cook about 3 minutes until crisp and lightly golden brown.

Using a slotted spoon or wire strainer, remove golden brown cauliflower bites and drain on paper towels or on a wire rack.

Continue working in batches until all the cauliflower pieces are cooked.

In a second sauté pan, mix together four spoonfuls of the sweet chili sauce and one spoonful of the bbq chipotle sauce. Heat over a medium flame. Working in batches again, toss the cooked cauliflower pieces in the sauce. Add more sauce as needed.

Serve hot. Plate and top with sesame seeds and scallions.