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Cauliflower

Discover the hidden talents of this winter gem

Fine Cooking Issue 83
Photos: Scott Phillips
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When I was a child, we ate cauliflower only one way: boiled and coated with cheese sauce. I can’t say I was crazy about it. The cauliflower was cooked too long, at least by today’s standards, and back then I didn’t like cheese very much. It was only years later, when I experienced perfectly cooked cauliflower topped by a delicate, citrusy hollandaise-type sauce, that I discovered its wonderfully sweet nuttiness and came to love this winter vegetable. Now, I serve it often— roasted or sautéed, as a side dish for hearty braises and roasts; puréed in soups; or even as an appetizer, along with a brightly flavored sauce or dip.

The secret to getting the most flavor from cauliflower is to not overcook it. It should be just tender—when a metal skewer inserted in the stem meets the faintest resistance, it’s done. I prefer high-heat cooking methods like roasting or pan-searing (see the recipe Browned Cauliflower with Anchovies, Olives & Capers), because they brown the cauliflower and add a lovely caramelized sweetness. But cauliflower is also delicious steamed or boiled.

Besides the familiar combo with anchovies, cauliflower is great with other strong partners like olives, capers, soy sauce, and curry, as well as with rich pork products like bacon and prosciutto. At the other end of the spectrum, cauliflower plays nicely with cream, butter, eggs, and nuts. Potatoes and beans blend well with it, too, softening its flavor a bit.

How to cut cauliflower for any dish

Always start by trimming away the leaves and the base of the stem.

Whole florets

Simply cut the florets away from the central stem with a knife. Pay close attention during cooking and remove smaller ones as they’re cooked through. Whole florets are great steamed, boiled, or roasted.

Quick idea: Lightly steam florets and serve them with a dip or sauce, such as a pungent anchoiade or bagna cauda (both anchovy- based), a garlic-basil mayonnaise, or a citrus-spiked soy dipping sauce.

Halved or quartered florets

Smaller cut-up florets are wonderful sautéed or roasted. Try to cut them into relatively even sizes so they cook at the same rate. (See the recipe Browned Cauliflower with Anchovies, Olives & Capers for more cutting details.)

Quick idea: Toss halved or quartered florets with olive oil, salt, and paprika, and roast at 375°F until tender and browned around the edges. Halfway through the cooking, add grated lemon zest and chopped fresh oregano. Squeeze on some lemon juice, toss, and serve warm.

Slices

For something a little different, cut whole florets lengthwise into thin, elegant slices that are perfect for deep frying or baking in gratins. You can also blanch them lightly and add them to salads for crunch.

Quick idea:  Dip 1/4-inch-thick slices in beaten egg, coat with breadcrumbs, and fry in 365°F peanut oil until golden outside and crisp-tender inside. Season with salt and serve with lemon wedges or a bowl of spicy marinara sauce.

Whip up a soup, a pasta, or a purée

  • Make a velvety soup with curry and yogurt. Sweat chopped celery and onion in olive oil. Stir in minced garlic and a little curry powder. Add vegetable broth, chopped tomato, and chopped cauliflower florets. Simmer, covered, until the vegetables are tender, and then purée in a blender. Season with salt and stir in plain yogurt.
  • Use leftover cauliflower for a delicious pasta sauce. Cook minced garlic and crushed red pepper flakes in olive oil until fragrant. Add anchovy filets and mash to a paste with a wooden spoon. Add chopped cooked cauliflower, season with salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until the cauliflower is hot. Stir in a ladleful of pasta cooking water and serve over a short, stubby pasta, such as penne.
  • Serve puréed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes. Boil or steam cauliflower and then purée it in a blender or food processor. Add cream or butter and season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg.

A head of a different color

We’re all familiar with white cauliflower, but nowadays you can also find a beautiful deep-golden variety and a stunning purple one. Then there’s the exotic and weirdly gorgeous lime-green Romanesco, with conical, spiral florets that look like seashells. Despite their different appearances, all types of cauliflower have a similar sweet, assertive flavor that pairs well with both rich, pungent ingredients and more delicate ones.

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