Cauliflower is versatile, delicious and healthy

Roasted cauliflower florets with a sprinkling of chives. BY JACK CLEMONS
October 3, 2011

I brought home a perfect cauliflower last week: creamy white with a large, tightly packed head of florets cradled in a nest of thick green leaves. Just looking at it made me wonder what brave forager would have been the first to try eating it. As it happens, cauliflower has been around since Roman times, coming west from Cyprus and finally reaching European tables in the 16th century. By the time of Louis XIV, cauliflower was considered a delicacy, served whole and dressed with rich sauces and sweetbreads.

During the Victorian era, cauliflower earned notice from Mark Twain, who has been widely quoted (from "Pudd’nHead Wilson") “Training is everything. A peach was once a bitter almond; a cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education." No one is quite sure whether he thought the vegetable resembled a brain or if he was touting the expense and cachet of serving cauliflower as compared to the ordinary and ubiquitous cabbage.

The name cauliflower means cabbage flower; however it isn’t the flower of the cabbage, but a different plant. A member of the brassica family, cauliflower resembles broccoli in its early stages of growth. Over time, instead of several stalks, it develops a single compact head made of undeveloped white flower buds. The head is sometimes called the curd to describe its similar appearance to curds of milk solids. Unlike its relatives (Brussels sprouts, kale and kohlrabi) cauliflower stays white because the outside layers of dark green leaves surround the head to protect it from sunlight and the development of chlorophyll.

That being said, you can also find varieties of cauliflower in shades of green or purple. The most interesting of these cultivars is the yellow-green Romanesco, which looks more like a futuristic mineral formation than a vegetable. This cauliflower has generated a great deal of interest in the mathematical world as an example of a fractal - a geometric figure where each part has the same geometric characteristics as the whole. You may also find Broccoflower, a cross between broccoli and cauliflower with flavor qualities of each.

When selecting cauliflower, check the jacket leaves that wrap the bottom and sides of the head. These should be green, with no signs of yellowing or withering. The bottom should be firm; reject any that are soft at the base and any with browned spots. To prepare the cauliflower, trim off the outer leaves and separate the florets from the tough inner stem. Save the leaves, if you like, to throw into a vegetable soup or cook as you would collard greens.

While all the parts of the cauliflower can be eaten, most recipes call for using only the florets. You’ve probably seen them on crudité platters - not the best way to feature their delicate, slightly nutty flavor. Many of us can recall the unpleasant aroma of boiled cauliflower as it released the healthful (but odiferous) sulfur compounds found in all cruciferous vegetables. The best ways to cook cauliflower are either to blanch or roast the trimmed florets.

To blanch, simmer for a few minutes in boiling water, adding a generous splash of milk to avoid discoloration. Once they begin to soften, immerse them in an ice-water bath to stop the cooking process and keep them from turning into mush. The pieces can now be added to soup or risotto or tossed with vinaigrette for a salad. I’ve included a recipe for cauliflower gratin that uses florets to replace the pasta in a traditional mac and cheese; you can substitute your favorite hard cheese for the Gruyere.

For the dish in the photo, the florets were drizzled with olive oil, sprinkled with salt and then roasted for about 30 minutes. The mixture of crunchy and soft textures combined with the earthy olive oil creates a delicious side dish or addition to an omelet. Several Indian dishes are made with cauliflower and potatoes seasoned with curry spices. You’ll find countless variations on the basic recipe, some adding onion, chickpeas or tomato.

Cauliflower wasn’t widely cultivated in this country until the early 1900s, about the same time the Long Island Cauliflower Association was founded. Originally focused on sourcing quality cauliflower seed for growers, over the past century it has expanded to a line of more than 500 agricultural products and services - and to think it all started with the well-educated cauliflower.

Cauliflower Gratin
1 head cauliflower
2 T butter
2 T flour
2 C milk
1/2 t salt
1/4 t nutmeg
3/4 C grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 C Parmesan cheese
1/2 C breadcrumbs
2 T melted butter

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F. Coat the inside of a 9-by-13 baking pan with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. Trim the cauliflower into 1-inch florets. Cook the cauliflower in boiling water for 8 minutes; drain and set aside. Place the butter in a small saucepan and melt over low heat. Whisk in the flour and stir constantly until a roux forms. Pour in the milk and stir constantly until thickened. Remove from heat and add salt, nutmeg, 1/2 C Gruyere and 1/4 C Parmesan. Pour half of the sauce on the bottom of the baking pan. Arrange blanched cauliflower evenly and top with the rest of the sauce. In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs with remaining cheese and melted butter. Sprinkle mixture over the top and bake until golden brown, about 20 minutes. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Roasted Cauliflower
1 head cauliflower
2 T olive oil
1 t kosher salt
1 T snipped chives

Preheat oven to 400 F. Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside. Remove and discard the leaves and core of the cauliflower. Trim into uniform-size florets. Spread the cauliflower on the baking sheet and drizzle with olive oil. Toss with a spatula to coat all the pieces. Sprinkle with salt and bake for 15 minutes. Toss the florets again and return to the oven for another 15 minutes. Serve garnished with snipped chives or use in quiche, omelet or risotto.

Curried Cauliflower
1/4 C canola oil
1 t cumin seed
2 green chiles, chopped
2 T grated ginger
2 bay leaves
2 T coriander
1 t paprika
1/2 t turmeric
2 white potatoes, chopped
1 head cauliflower florets
salt, to taste
1 T cilantro

Heat the oil over medium in a large skillet with a tight-fitting lid. When the oil begins to shimmer, toss in the cumin seeds; sizzle for about 30 seconds. Add the chiles, ginger and bay leaves; sauté for about 2 minutes. Stir in the coriander, paprika and turmeric; sauté for another minute. Stir in the potatoes until coated with the spices; add water, cover tightly, reduce heat to low and cook for 10 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and salt; cover and cook for another 15 minutes, just until the vegetables are cooked, but not falling apart. Garnish with cilantro. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Cauliflower Soup
2 T olive oil
2 leeks
1 head cauliflower
2 C vegetable broth
1/2 t white pepper
salt, to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon
paprika for garnish

Trim and rinse the leeks; cut into thin slices, discarding the tough green tops. Heat olive oil in a soup pot and sauté the leeks until wilted, about 5 minutes. Trim the leaves from the cauliflower and slice thickly. Add the cauliflower to the pot and cook for about 5 minutes.

Pour in the vegetable broth and bring to a boil. Lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Remove from heat and puree until smooth using an immersion blender. Add lemon juice, pepper and salt, to taste. Garnish with paprika. Yield: 4 servings.