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Cauliflower Captures Our Culinary Imagination

Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cauliflower is about to become the new kale, according to something I read online. And that’s just fine with me, because I have grown awfully tired of kale. When a vegetable becomes nothing but a raw garnish, as kale has, a limp and lifeless ruffle at the edge of your plate, then you know its star-studded status is truly over and done with.

I suppose kale had its virtues, but there is a reason we all had to be taught to love it, and not only to love it but to contort it into all sorts of iterations, some of which were less than inviting. Raw kale in a salad, for me, is just plain roughage, and as for a kale smoothie, well, the less said the better, I feel.

And now kale is, as they say, so last year.

On to cauliflower, then, which itself offers almost as many possibilities as kale, although plate decoration maybe isn’t one of them. Unlike kale, cauliflower is fully as delicious raw as it is cooked, delightful in a salad or on a tray of crudités (raw vegetables) served with a dipping sauce.

Cauliflower, a versatile vegetable

And once cauliflower is cooked, it can be turned into any number of other dishes, starting with cauliflower on its own, garnished with black olives and capers, perhaps with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds on top. Take the leftovers of that dish, chop them up and toss over medium heat in a few tablespoons of olive oil, just long enough to brown them, and you’ll have a perfect sauce for a suppertime pasta dish, in the Italian style of just-about-anything-goes-with-pasta. Call it penne al cavolfiore and tell your guests you had it last summer in Sicily.

Or cook the cauliflower a little longer in some chicken stock, along with a small potato cubed, until both vegetables are very tender, stir in a dollop of cream, then purée the whole thing until smooth as velvet and you will have a superbly elegant French soup to serve as a starter — crème velouté au choufleur. And it’s even more impressive with a spoonful of very fine cultured butter, maybe another dribble of cream and a scattering of fresh chives over the top.

Then there’s that old-fashioned English dish called cauliflower cheese, in which the cauliflower, cooked just till you can easily break apart the  florets, is arranged in a buttered dish, covered with a sauce Mornay and transferred to a hot oven until the sauce has blistered slightly and browned on top and the florets are tender. And what is a sauce Mornay? Simple: Make a béchamel sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons of flour, stirring together over medium-low heat until the mixture is thick and has lost its floury smell. Stir into it, a little at a time, 2 cups of very hot milk, whisking all the while, until you have a thick sauce, then add a couple of handfuls of grated cheese — Parmigiano, cheddar, Gruyère, it almost doesn’t matter as long as it’s a firm cheese that’s easy to grate. (This is a good way to use up leftover bits of cheese in that drawer in the refrigerator where you’ve hidden them all.) You can add salt, pepper, maybe some cayenne if you wish, and that’s all there is to it.

Despite its pale color, cauliflower is actually one of those powerhouse brassica vegetables and a surprisingly good source of vitamin C. When shopping, look for tightly clustered clean, white heads with fresh green leaves. You’ll trim off the leaves and stem for cooking, but don’t discard them. Chopped in smaller pieces, they make a nice addition to a vegetable minestrone. And what about packaged, cut florets in the supermarket produce section? Don’t bother. They are a waste of money, flavor and vitamins.

Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Black Olives

Cauliflower with Lemon, Capers and Black Olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

Cauliflower With Lemon, Capers and Black Olives. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins

From “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” by Nancy Harmon Jenkins.

Prep time: About 10 minutes

Cook time: About 15 minutes

Total time: About 25 minutes

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Ingredients

1 firm head of cauliflower, about 1 pound

1/2 cup pitted black olives, coarsely chopped

1 heaping tablespoon salt-packed capers, rinsed and drained

2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley

Grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Sea salt

Pinch of crushed red chili pepper

2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped

1/3 cup olive oil, preferably a deep-flavored oil from Italy or Greece

2 tablespoons or more of toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds for garnishing, if desired

Directions

1. Trim the cauliflower and break the head into florets.

2. On a chopping board, combine the olives, capers, parsley and lemon zest and chop together to mix well.

3. Bring a pot of water large enough to hold the cauliflower to a rolling boil. Add a big pinch of salt and, when it returns to a boil, add the cauliflower. Cook until just barely tender, about 6 minutes (less if using very small florets).

4. Meanwhile, in a skillet large enough to hold all the ingredients, warm the chili pepper and garlic in the oil over medium-low heat until hot, 3 or 4 minutes. The chili and garlic should be starting to melt in the oil, rather than sizzling and browning.

5. Stir in the lemon juice and cook for another 2 minutes, then add the olive-caper mix, give it a stir, take it off the heat and set aside.

6. Drain the cauliflower well, shaking the colander. Combine the cauliflower with the olive-caper dressing in the skillet and set the skillet back over medium heat. Warm it up to serving temperature, tasting to make sure the seasoning is right, and serve, garnishing with toasted pine nuts or slivered almonds if you wish.

Note: This recipe is equally good with broccoli or with romanesco, the green spiral cauliflower. You can also mix white cauliflower and green romanesco together for a handsome presentation. If you wish to serve this as a pasta sauce, simply chop or break the florets into smaller pieces. Add everything to a skillet and set over low heat to warm while you cook about 1 pound (500 grams) of penne or similar short, stubby pasta according to package directions. As the pasta finishes cooking, add a little pasta water to the cauliflower and raise the heat. Drain the pasta and combine in the skillet with the cauliflower sauce, tossing to mix. Serve immediately, passing grated cheese if you wish.

Main photo: Cauliflower at a market in Tuscany, Italy. Credit: Copyright 2016 Nancy Harmon Jenkins



Zester Daily contributor Nancy Harmon Jenkins is the author of many books about Italy and the Mediterranean. Her most recent books are "Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil," published by Houghton Mifflin in February 2015, and "The Four Seasons of Pasta," published by Avery in October 2015.

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