The Many Tastes, Colors, and Joys of Cauliflower
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Cauliflower has transformed from the avoided vegetable of your youth to a cherished gem of taste and nutrition as well as an upscale culinary delight. Cauliflower has been all the rage on the culinary scene in the past few years. Naturally high in vitamin C and a great source of fiber, the rebirth of cauliflower is not due to its health benefits — that’s old news — but due to its versatility in the kitchen.
To complement its growing popularity, cauliflower sales have skyrocketed in the past few years, gaining nearly 40% between 2016-2019. Formerly known as that tasteless white vegetable that mom steamed and served alongside tuna casserole, cauliflower is now featured at numerous high-end restaurants around the world.
We’re not only talking about cauliflower soup or mashed cauliflower but delicacies like cauliflower gratin, general Tso’s cauliflower, or buffalo cauliflower (i.e., in place of chicken wings) have become regular features in upscale restaurants.
The cauliflower pizza crust is not only a Pinterest craze but has become a staple in some pizza chains, a great alternative for those with celiac or other wheat-avoidant diets.
Then there’s cauliflower rice, pulsed cauliflower that resembles the shape and texture of rice, that has become wildly popular much to the ire of rice companies, who have legislated to outlaw the term ‘cauliflower rice’. The term ‘riced cauliflower’ is the now legally acceptable term in states such as Arkansas.
What is Cauliflower?
Cauliflower is part of the Brassica plant family—made up of cruciferous vegetables, (think cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli), known as such since the four petals of their flowers resemble a cross. We generally eat only the head, or curds (named for their resemblance to cheese curds), of the cauliflower.
Cauliflower comes from the Italian cavolfiore, which translates as ‘cabbage flower’ since cabbage is the plant and cauliflower is the flower of the plant.
Taste of Cauliflower
Cauliflower has a mild nutty flavor with sweet undertones. It does have a sharp, slightly bitter aftertaste whose strength will fluctuate based on the type of cauliflower and how long it was exposed to the sun when growing (too much sun here is a bad thing).
Different people’s taste buds process bitter tastes differently causing the bitterness of cauliflower to be more apparent for some than others. In general, though, the quite neutral flavor makes cauliflower a great vegetable for numerous recipes, as the flavoring given to it is what will stand out foremost.
The Cauliflower Rainbow
Move over boring white cauliflower. Of the hundreds of existing cauliflower varieties, the colorful genres will add a splash of color, and a unique taste, to your meal.
The purple, green, and orange cousins of plain ol’ white cauliflower started popping up in farmer’s markets and supermarkets a bit more than a decade ago, and have become increasingly popular and, therefore, increasingly available.
Green cauliflowers, also known as broccoflower, tend to have a sweeter and milder taste than their white cousins. Their texture is more similar to broccoli than cauliflower, making them more firm and less crumbly.
There is also Romanesco (referred to as Romanesco broccoli or Romanesco cauliflower, but it’s the same vegetable) which has artistic looking spiky florets and is crunchier and sweeter than traditional white cauliflower.
Eye-catching purple varieties are not only a stunning addition to any salad but they have increased health benefits. The purple hue is caused by anthocyanins, which cause a blue, purple, or black color in foods. You will find it in blueberries, raspberries, black rice, and many other foods.
Anthocyanins are a powerhouse of nutrients and antioxidants and are believed to have properties that can help prevent cancer and diabetes, as well as improve visual health, among other benefits.
Taste-wise, the florets of purple cauliflower has a soft crumbly texture similar to the white variety, yet are sweeter and milder creating a perfect synthesis of beauty and flavor.
The downside to purple cauliflower is that its magnificent royal shade may turn from vibrant purple to barely-there green when cooking it, especially if you boil it.
The color of orange cauliflower, on the other hand, actually deepens when cooking.
Orange cauliflowers, such as cheddar cauliflower — named for its color, not taste — have a lot of nutrition to offer due to the beta-carotene they contain. This may also contribute to its sweeter and milder flavor.
Choosing a Cauliflower
Cauliflower is available all year round but its peak season is in the Fall (and extends through the Winter), so take advantage of the current cauliflowery abundance and go pick up one or two heads of the freshest, most vibrant cauliflower at your local farmer’s market.
Look for firm heads with compact florets. As opposed to broccoli, cauliflower florets should be tightly closed, making it hard to distinguish separate florets, it should look more like one beautiful entity.
Be sure that there are no brown patches and that the cauliflower isn’t soft. The leaves should look crisp and green, not yellow and wilting.
Cauliflower should be kept unwashed and loosely wrapped or in a ventilated plastic bag in your refrigerator’s crisper. Properly stored cauliflower will last 3-7 days. If it was super fresh when purchased, and stored properly, you might be able to get even 2 weeks, or more, out of it.
Cauliflower can certainly be eaten raw. Add color to your crudité with a colorful cauliflower combination. Or toss some fresh white cauliflower into a colorful garden salad for added crunch.
If you do plan on cooking your cauliflower, the preferred methods of cooking are dry ones, such as roasting, sautéing, grilling, or frying. When properly cooked, cauliflower gives off a very subtle taste, making it perfect to pair with a variety of sauces and seasonings.
Wash, dry, and lightly toss cauliflower florets with extra virgin olive oil and your seasoning of choice. Some people prefer a traditional salt and pepper cauliflower, or you can try to add a bit of zing with spices such as zaatar or Cajun seasoning. The options are endless, try to find a few your family will love.
Roast at 425°F/220°C for about 30 minutes, checking it after 20 minutes.
You will also find numerous recipes for whole roasted cauliflowers which can be a great main at a vegan meal. A whole cauliflower generally needs to be slightly parboiled or steamed before roasting to ensure the center is thoroughly cooked. Follow recipe directions for the exact cooking method.
Not only is sauteed cauliflower incredibly delicious, but it is also a fast cooking method that ensures the nutrients (and generally colors) don’t leach out. Fast and yummy. Definitely a keeper in my book!
Depending on the size of your florets and desired degree of remaining crunch, sautéing cauliflower will take anywhere between 5-15 minutes.
Cauliflower should be sautéed on medium-high with good-quality extra virgin olive oil (what else?). Try mixing it with fresh garlic, onion, cherry tomatoes, or any other desired vegetables.
Drizzle with your favorite sauce or a squeeze of lemon juice in the last three to four minutes of cooking, and turn up the temperature to high to get some nice browned tips.
Cauliflower steaks are a great way to give this nutritious and delicious vegetable the spotlight. Whether making it as a main, adding it to a buffet, or serving as a side dish sure to wow your guests – grilling your cauliflower is super fast and simple.
Place the steaks on a grill set to medium, and brush with your favorite basic marinade. I would go for olive oil, lots of fresh lemon juice, chopped parsley, and a pinch of chili flakes. You can also add a small dollop of honey if you like it sweet.
Another option is a spice mixture of olive oil, hot paprika, cumin, and turmeric. The flavoring possibilities are endless — your cauliflower steaks, your choice!
Flip over after 3-5 minutes, baste with marinade and grill for another 3-5 minutes until slightly charred and cooked to the desired degree of doneness.
Fried cauliflower is a scrumptious delicacy popular in cuisines all around the world. Cauliflower florets can be dipped in egg-then-flour/breadcrumbs and pan-fried—mmm…or in a nice batter and deep-fried—really mmm.
Add some hot paprika to your flour mixture or hot sauce to your batter for an extra kick. Serve with a garlic dip, sriracha mayo, salsa, yogurt dip, or whatever else you’d like!
Some recipes may have you parboil the cauliflower to make it faster and easier to fry. If you choose such a method, be sure to blanch it so it doesn’t cook too much (see the section on boiling cauliflower below).
Boiling cauliflower should be avoided as it releases a very unappetizing sulfurous smell, which not only will cause anyone in the house to start screaming about the stench, it can turn the cauliflower bitter. And anyway, wouldn’t it be a shame to make such a bland dish when there are so many delicious cauliflower alternatives.
If you do like the taste of boiled cauliflower (childhood nostalgia?), steaming or blanching is a doable option, preferably in a non-aluminum pot.
Mark Twain claimed that “Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education” but I think he may have changed his mind had he tried that amazing new cauliflower creation you’re planning on whipping up this Sunday.