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High Heat Adds Zip to Cauliflower

Bring out the best in this surprisingly versatile vegetable by roasting and sautéing

Fine Cooking Issue 50
Photos: Sarah Jay and Scott Phillips
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I love cauliflower. Its subtle nature presents a world of possibilities to the creative cook. But it has to be cooked correctly and combined with the right flavors.

For inspiration, I tend to look to the Mediterranean, where this vegetable originated (cauliflower later became a staple in northern Europe, where it thrives as a cold-weather, frost-resistant crop). This may comes as a surprise to those who know cauliflower only through cheese-laden casseroles or bland puréed soups. But I find that the bold, vibrant flavors of Mediterranean cuisine are the perfect counterpoint to cauliflower’s mild manners.

Shopping for a head of cauliflower

When shopping for a head of cauliflower, don’t walk away if you can’t find one that’s perfectly white and blemish-free. Yellow spots on the florets only mean that the vegetable got a little “sunburn”—the cauliflower’s leaves didn’t fully wrap themselves over the florets during growth. Sometimes cauliflower will have brown or grayish spots on the florets as well. That’s a small mold that’s just fine to slice away, according to the University of California at Davis Vegetable Research and Information Center. Most important, look for heads of cauliflower that are firm and not limp.

Keep it out of hot water

For the most part, I prefer roasting cauliflower to boiling or steaming because the high, dry heat concentrates the flavor, adds nuttiness, and encourages caramelization, which increases the complexity of the flavor. Sautéing is another favorite method; it delivers similar results to roasting. I often roast more than I plan to eat, saving the leftovers to toss with a quick vinaigrette the next day.

Boiling or steaming tends to bring out the one-dimensional, cabbagy side of cauliflower, and it doesn’t help to eliminate the water that cauliflower is so full of. If you do find that you need very simply cooked cauliflower for part of a recipe, I suggest steaming rather than boiling, because at least the cauliflower won’t absorb more water.

For many cooks, cauliflower’s awkward shape can pose a challenge. This, too, has a solution. After trimming back the leaves, I use the tip of my small chef’s knife (a sturdy, sharp paring knife will also do) to cut around the main stem and free as many large branches as possible. I then follow the growth pattern along the stem of each floret, severing smaller branches as opposed to just slicing through the floret. In fact, I never cut directly through the “flower.” I like to preserve the natural,curving form of the florets by cutting through the stem part of the buds and then snapping them apart.

Once you cut into a head of cauliflower, you don’t need to cook it all. One of its great features is that, uncooked, it seems to keep forever. Even for my family of four, one head of cauliflower goes a long way and, invariably, part of it ends up in the crisper, sometimes to linger for days. At a moment’s notice, I can trim off a few florets for a salad or pasta recipe.So don’t feel guilty about that half a cauliflower kicking around your fridge. Just cut off a bit when the urge arises.

Trim through the trunk. Preserve the shape of the florets by wedging a knife between the smaller stems (not cutting through the buds) and then snapping them apart.

Roast cauliflower for the best flavor

Roasting is an ideal way to prepare cauliflower. It’s simple and quick, requiring little attention and cooking in about 30 minutes. And the high, dry heat of the oven yields golden-brown, crisp-tender florets with an accent on the sweet, nutty essence of this vegetable—not its sulfurous, cabbagy traits. Roasted cauliflower, seasoned with a little salt and pepper, makes a great vegetable side dish as is. But tossed with just a few basic ingredients, a simple dish becomes exceptional. Try some of the ingredient combinations below.

To roast cauliflower, cut a small head into florets that are about the same size and toss with 2 Tbs. olive oil, salt, and pepper; spread on a rimmed baking sheet. Roast in a 400ºF oven on the lowest rack, turning every 10 minutes, until golden brown and crisp-tender, 25 to 35 minutes.

After roasting, toss with delicious accents
• Fresh lemon juice, minced fresh rosemary, and chopped capers.
• Orange zest, minced fresh parsley, and sun-dried tomatoes (oil-packed, drained, and chopped).
• Pitted, chopped kalamata olives, dried red chile flakes, and bitter greens, such as endive, radicchio, or broccoli raab (chopped into bite-size pieces and tossed with the roasted cauliflower in the pan while still hot).
• Mustard vinaigrette (Dijon mustard, white-wine vinegar, and extra-virgin olive) and minced fresh thyme.
• Crumbled blue cheese and caraway seeds.
• Minced shallots, minced fresh tarragon, and grated lemon zest.

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