I have rarely met a cauliflower dish that I didn’t like (well, since my boarding school days, but that’s a lifetime ago). This cruciferous vegetable lends itself to salads and curries, soups and beignets, gratins and pasta dishes.
Mediterranean cuisines, those of Italy and of Greece in particular, love cauliflower. They pickle it; marry it with capers, anchovies and onions; stew it with tomatoes and olives and feta. Deep-fried cauliflower served with a pungent tahini sauce is one of my favorite Middle Eastern mezes. Tunisians make a marvelous tagine with cauliflower, tomatoes, onions and olives that they serve with couscous.
One of an occasional series on vegetables that should get more love
When I lived in Paris I would buy huge choux-fleurs in my market every week and transform them into soups, gratins and choux-fleurs à la grecque (which wasn’t Greek at all), just like my neighbors did. When I ate at Jamin the first time, back when it was Joël Robuchon’s restaurant, he served an ethereal purée of cauliflower soup that was probably equal weights butter, cream and cauliflower, strained to a silky texture that I will never forget. Indians, too, know what to do with cauliflower. For years I’ve been going to the Los Angeles restaurant Bombay Café just for their cauliflower frankie (a type of wrap sandwich).
Now that we have fancy purple and golden cauliflowers alongside the white ones at many farmers markets, this vegetable is beginning to develop a bit of a cachet and a price tag, but I’ll settle for a nice white cauliflower for under $2.
The trick with cauliflower is to cook it enough, but not to overcook it. Those who don’t like the vegetable are probably still informed by memories of overcooked cauliflower served in a college or boarding school dining hall with a gloppy cheese sauce. You’ll get over it when you try these Mediterranean cauliflower dishes.
Pasta With Cauliflower, Tomato Sauce and Olives
Throughout Italy and Greece, and in North Africa, you’ll find this triumvirate of cauliflower, tomatoes and olives in all sorts of dishes.
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and add the cauliflower. Boil for 5 minutes and transfer to a bowl of ice water. Drain and blot dry. Cover the pot; you’ll use the water again for the pasta. Quarter the cauliflower florets and set aside.
- In a wide frying pan, or in a 3-quart saucepan, heat the oil over medium heat and add the garlic and red pepper flakes. Cook, stirring, until fragrant, about 1 minute.
- Add the tomatoes, sugar, thyme, and salt, and bring to a simmer. Simmer over medium-low heat, stirring often, until thick, 10 to 15 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower and the olives and simmer a few minutes more. Taste and adjust seasonings.
- Bring the water back to a rolling boil. Add the pasta and cook until the pasta is al dente. Add a ladleful of the pasta water to the pan with the tomatoes and cauliflower. Drain the pasta and toss with the cauliflower/tomato mixture and the parsley. Sprinkle the cheese over the top and serve at once.
Advance preparation: The recipe can be made through Step 2 as much as a day before serving. Keep in the refrigerator overnight, or on the stove, off heat, for a few hours.
Cauliflower With Red Onion, Capers, Parsley and Vinegar
Serves 4 to 6 as an antipasto
- Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add a generous amount of salt, and the cauliflower. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes, or until tender. Transfer to a bowl of ice-cold water, then drain.
- Meanwhile, place the sliced red onion in a bowl and cover with cold water and 1 teaspoon red wine vinegar. Let sit for 5 minutes. Drain and rinse in several changes of water.
- In a large bowl, mix together the garlic, parsley, capers, champagne vinegar and olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add the cauliflower and toss together. Let marinate, stirring from time to time, for 30 minutes if possible before serving. Serve warm, cold or at room temperature, with plenty of Italian bread for soaking up the marinade.
Advance preparation: This keeps well in the refrigerator for up to 5 days. You should replenish the parsley, which will have faded after a day.
Serves 6 as a meze
Much as I shun most deep-fried food, I can never resist this Middle Eastern classic.
For the cauliflower:
For the tahini garlic sauce:
- Bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil. Fill a bowl with ice water. When the water reaches a boil, add the cauliflower and parboil for 4 minutes. Transfer to the ice water, then drain thoroughly. Pat the florets dry with paper towels.
- Heat the oil in a deep-fryer, a wok, or a large saucepan to 360 to 375 F. Drop in the cauliflower, a few florets at a time, and deep-fry to a golden brown, turning the florets in the oil so they cook evenly. This should take no more than 3 minutes. Remove from the oil using a deep-fry skimmer or a slotted spoon, and drain briefly on paper towels, then set the florets on a rack and sprinkle with salt.
- Purée the garlic cloves with ¼ teaspoon salt in a mortar and pestle. Transfer to a bowl, and whisk in the sesame tahini. Whisk in the lemon juice, beginning with the smaller amount. The mixture will stiffen up. Gradually whisk in up to ¾ cup water, until the sauce has the consistency of thick cream (or runny yogurt). Add the red pepper flakes if using, and salt to taste.
- Drizzle cauliflower florets with garlic tahini sauce, sprinkle with chopped parsley and serve.
Advance preparation: The cauliflower may be blanched several hours or even a day ahead, and held in the refrigerator. Make sure to blot dry before frying.
The sauce keeps, tightly covered, in the refrigerator for a week, but the fresher it is, the better. It will thicken as it sits. Thin out each time with water or water and lemon juice.
Photo: Colorful cauliflower at the market. Credit: Martha Rose Shulman