Like Brussels sprouts, cauliflower is one of those vegetables that many people, especially children, feel antipathy towards. Actually, this aversion is shared by many toward most of the brassicas, and the reason is simple: Too many people have over-cooked these vegetables and then foisted them off on family members as “being good for you” while stinking up the house. Cauliflower seems more prone to this mishap than the rest of the brassicas, but with a little “magic” in the form of close attention to cooking, cauliflower — like Cinderella — becomes the belle of the ball. In other countries, cauliflower is cherished for its dual nature. It can taste delicate and nuanced, or be robust and sweetly nutty flavored. Textures run from silky smooth, to lightly crumbly when raw, to toothsome and even pleasantly leathery roasted. It pairs well with subtler flavors such as wine and herbs, and is great in cheesy gratins or garlicky pastas. It’s wonderful with Indian and Middle-Eastern spices as well. It’s all in how you cook it.
The one thing NOT to do is over-cook it. The easiest ways to avoid this are to 1) pay attention and 2) do not boil cauliflower for longer than a few moments. Many recipes call for boiling until soft, but since it keeps cooking once removed from the water it gets mushy. Rather than boiling, try blanching in large amounts of salted water for just a few minutes, until it is just tender, or steam it. This is easier to control and doesn’t waterlog the vegetable. Cut the vegetable into uniform sizes that are not so large the outside over-cooks as the inside just gets tender. This is especially important when the recipe calls for sautéing the florets after blanching to flavor and color them. This method is used for braising cauliflower for brilliantly flavorful tagines and curried “stews” as well as for pasta dishes.
Dry sautéing caramelizes cauliflower and shows the sweet and nutty flavors well. Think garlic, capers, raisins, and herbs here. To avoid using lots of oil, mist the cauliflower with oil and toss to coat lightly before adding to the pan. An almost fool-proof method to avoid over-cooking which yields great flavor is to roast cauliflower. Whole or pieces, this is a great method. Depending how long you cook it, the results run from delicately flavored crisp-tender to deeply flavored slightly chewy, caramelized nuttiness. The trick to avoiding over-cooking is not to crowd the pieces lest they steam rather than roast. Roasting intensifies the flavors as well as the colors of cauliflower, and is a favorite with children because of this. You can also marinate cauliflower before roasting. It also lends itself well to puréeing for soup or gratins with cheese and béchamel sauces.
Cauliflower comes in many colors. White cauliflower is the result of “blanching.” This is when the farmer ties the leaves over the head, or curds, to keep out the sun. Some are yellow, others are a cheddar-y orange. There are a few shades of green, including the Romanesco “broccoli” which is actually a cauliflower, and there is purple as well. Some folks say there is no difference in taste amongst colors, but I taste a difference with the purple versus the others — a little more depth and sweetness. And Romanesco does have a taste and texture of its own, to be sure.
When picking any cauliflower, look for a tight, dense head without blemishes on the curd. Avoid those with brown spots or decay, or those that look like they were trimmed on the surface. Likely these are older and will exude “that smell” and taste when cooked. When selecting, give the cauliflower a good sniff near the base. A little funk is okay. A lot? Pass. Cauliflower should feel heavy for its size. When storing it, keep it cold and dry. Keep it in a paper towel lined box, or a bag with the curds facing down to prevent condensation from the top settling and causing spoilage. Store for just a few days. If you do have discoloration, use a vegetable peeler to trim the surface if it is shallow.
Look for cauliflower at Swanton Berry Farm, Pinnacle, Borba Farms, and T & L Coke Farm, among others.
RECIPES: Gobi (Cauliflower) Manchurian, Creamy Roasted Cauliflower and Garlic Soup, Cheesy Cauliflower Gratin, Cauliflower with Orange Glaze and Toasted Pinenuts, Indian Cauliflower and Potato Curry, Indian Spice Roasted Cauliflower, Cauliflower Apple Purée, Broccoli and Cauliflower Brunch Casserole, Spicy Indian Cauliflower