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Seasonal Kitchen: Nutritious, versatile cauliflower earns home in chefs’ hearts

Wed., Feb. 19, 2014

Like fashion, when it comes to food trends, one day you’re in, and the next day you’re out.

This year, cauliflower is the new kale. (Kale is so 2013.) The ordinary, plain white vegetable has quickly become the darling of the food scene.

Chefs have become head-over-heels giddy about cauliflower, featuring it on their menus in unexpected and innovative ways. It’s a welcome change. I became a little kaled out the last year, champing at the bit for something new, inspiring and a little less, well, chewy.

Cauliflower is loaded with serious nutrients. A cruciferous vegetable, cauliflower is in the same plant family as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, cabbage and collards.

There is much research linking cauliflower to cancer prevention through its detoxifying, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. I think by now we all know what cauliflower looks like, but did you know that cauliflower’s compact head, called a “curd,” is made up of thousands of undeveloped flower buds? I like to imagine that they bloom inside us when eaten.

Surrounding the curd are ribbed, coarse green leaves that protect it from sunlight, which inhibits the production of chlorophyll, resulting in its whiteness. But these days, vibrantly colored varieties are popping up, too – bright oranges, spring greens and vibrant purples – and I can’t help but think of them as flowers.

The slightly sweet, nutty flavor of cauliflower is at its best from December through March when the vegetable is in season and most plentiful in our markets. Cauliflower is a temperamental, cool-season crop and thrives in consistent 60-degree temperatures, which is why most cauliflower is grown in the coastal valleys of California.

The thing about cauliflower that makes it so extraordinary in my mind is its unexpected transformability. Do you remember in the movie “Napoleon Dynamite” when the listless teenage main character, Napoleon, unexpectedly gets up on stage and whips out dance moves that leaves the audience feeling surprised beyond belief? That’s cauliflower.

To the health conscious, cauliflower opens up a whole new world of possibilities through its ability to do all sorts of culinary dance tricks. For example, raw cauliflower can be grated into fine “grains” that actually mimic rice in risotto. For those counting carbs, this is miraculous.

When cooked and puréed, its natural creaminess lends itself to making “cream sauces” like Alfredo, but without the use of any cream at all – a great tool for vegans and those counting fat and calories.

It can be turned into gluten-free pizza crust, baked into cakes and treated like mashed potatoes for a delicious, low-carb and more nutritious version. It can make soups luscious and rich without the fat. It can be treated like a steak, cut into a thick slices and grilled, or roasted whole.

Seared, grilled, roasted, smoked or fried, this hearty veggie is staking a claim as the other other white meat. If you are cooking for cauliflower skeptics, I have two secret weapons for you – and they can be applied to other veggies as well.

First, make a gratin. A comforting winter gratin with cauliflower, creamy sage béchamel, crispy bacon bits (or veggie bacon bits) and melty cheese will convert just about anyone.

Second, make cauliflower fritters. Crispy cauliflower fritters, in an egg-flour batter with a little cheese, fried and served with a yogurt sauce are pretty impossible to resist. You could start there.

But for a healthier, fun twist on cauliflower, try roasting it whole. Take the whole head, trimmed of its leaves, and set it upright on its thick stem. Drizzle it with olive oil, salt and pepper and roast upright it in the oven. When it’s finished, the outside will be caramelized and golden brown, and the inside tender. Sprinkle with sumac or za’atar, and serve with a lemony tahini sauce for a delicious Middle Eastern slant.

One of my favorite healthy vegan cauliflower side dishes is Cauliflower Steaks with Gremolata. A head of cauliflower is cut into half-inch thick slices or “steaks” and roasted in the oven. An Italian parsley, garlic, lemon zest and olive oil mixture called gremolata is spooned over top before serving.

The bright citrus flavors of the gremolata pair well with the caramelized cauliflower. This could be served on the side, or for fun presentation, place a cauliflower steak underneath your protein. It makes a nice flavorful bed for a piece of fish, beef or chicken. Take the leftovers and make cauliflower steak sandwiches for lunch the next day.

Creamy Cauliflower Gratin with Sage and Garlic

1 large head cauliflower

1/2 cup diced bacon or vegetarian bacon bits

1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil

1 cup sliced onion

6 to 10 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

1/2 cup water

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

3 tablespoons all-purpose flour (or rice flour)

2 cups whole milk

2 tablespoons freshly chopped sage leaves, plus more for garnish

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or ground is fine)

1/4 cup grated melty cheese, like mozzarella or Gruyère, plus 3 tablespoons for the top (optional)

1/3 cup grated hard flavorful cheese, like Parmesan, Romano or pecorino

1/3 cup bread crumbs (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Slice head of cauliflower into ½-inch thick slices, then chop into bite-size pieces. Sauté bacon in a heavy-bottom skillet on medium heat until just crisp. Set bacon aside, drain fat and wipe out pan. Sauté onion over medium-high heat in 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil until tender, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, turn heat to medium and sauté until fragrant and golden. Add chopped cauliflower and ½ cup water. Turn heat to medium low, cover pan with lid and let steam 12 to 14 minutes, until water has evaporated and cauliflower is fork tender. Don’t overcook. Drain any excess water.

While cauliflower is steaming, make Sage Béchamel sauce.

In a medium pot, melt butter over medium heat. Stir until butter just begins to become golden and becomes nutty and fragrant. Add flour. Stir and cook flour for at least 1 minute. Whisk in ½ cup milk, making sure to whisk all the flour from the corners and sides of the pot. Add another ½ cup milk, whisking well. When thickened, add final cup of milk, sage, spices, salt and whisk constantly until mixture thickens and just comes to a boil. Turn heat off. Add cheese and whisk until smooth.

Pour Sage Béchamel over the steamed cauliflower (be sure to drain any excess water) and stir it in, coating cauliflower well. Top with crispy bacon (or veggie “bacon bits”) and a few sage leaves and a little more cheese or bread crumbs. (You could refrigerate overnight at this point if making ahead.) Bake in the oven, uncovered, until lightly browned and bubbly, about 25 minutes.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Sumac and Tahini

1 head cauliflower

3 to 4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 teaspoon kosher salt (or try smoked salt)

1/2 teaspoon cracked pepper

1 teaspoon sumac (or za’atar)

1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley

1/2 cup tahini paste

1/4 cup fresh lemon juice

1 to 2 tablespoons water as needed

2 to 3 cloves garlic, finely minced

1 teaspoon cumin

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Carefully remove leaves of cauliflower and, using a paring knife, clean up the sides of the stem. Leave the stem intact, just trim the sides. Cut a slice off the bottom of stem to level it so cauliflower can sit upright.

Rub with 1 to 2 tablespoons of olive oil, ½ teaspoon of kosher salt on all sides, and freshly cracked pepper.

Place on a parchment-lined sheet pan or baking dish. Cover tightly with foil, sealing the edges well, and place in the oven for 45 to 50 minutes, or until just tender. Uncover and let brown 15 to 20 minutes.

While cauliflower is roasting, make the tahini sauce. In a small bowl, mix 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil, tahini paste, lemon juice, water, garlic and cumin using a fork. Set aside.

When cauliflower is golden brown and tender, remove from the oven, sprinkle with sumac or za’atar and either pour tahini sauce over it or serve it on the side. Garnish cauliflower with Italian parsley. Cut into wedges or slices to serve.

Yield: 2 to 4 servings

Cauliflower Steaks with Gremolata

1 large cauliflower

Olive oil for brushing

Kosher salt and pepper

For Gremolata

1 cup Italian parsley, finely chopped (or use part mint or cilantro)

2 to 3 garlic cloves, finely minced

1/3 cup olive oil

1 1/2 tablespoons lemon zest

1/8 cup fresh lemon juice

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove cauliflower leaves and trim the sides of the stem, leaving the length. Cut cauliflower into 1/2-inch to 3/4 -inch thick slices. Arrange on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil and sprinkle generously with kosher salt and a little pepper. Roast in the oven, uncovered, until golden and tender, about 30 minutes (check at 25 minutes). The thicker the slices the longer you will have to roast.

While cauliflower steaks are roasting, make the gremolata. Chop Italian parsley (some stems are OK) finely, to make roughly 1 cup, and place in a bowl. Add the rest of the ingredients and stir to combine. When cauliflower is tender, arrange on a platter, and drizzle gremolata over top.

Yield: 4 servings

The Seasonal Kitchen is a monthly feature. Local chef Sylvia Fountaine writes about seasonal foods she’s making in her kitchen, sharing recipes and a passion for local foods. Fountaine is a caterer and former co-owner of Mizuna restaurant. She writes about home cooking on her blog, Feasting at Home,


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