Here's a confession. I love cauliflower. As in, I could eat a big bowl of crispy, buttery cauliflower and be quite content with life. But as someone who values the nutrition that comes with a rainbow selection of vegetables on the dinner plate, eating something conspicuously devoid of color seems downright naughty. Could it be that cauliflower is the Wonder Bread of the vegetable world? Or is it stealthily packed with nutrients and enough Vitamin C to rival an orange? Surprisingly, the latter is true. Not bad for something writer Mark Twain once described as "cabbage with a college education."
Twain's linking of cauliflower with cabbage is a wise nod at their common ancestry. The vegetables are both part of the Brassica oleracea family, which is also home to Brussels sprouts, broccoli and kale -- basically every food you hated as a five year old but love now.
Beyond that, cauliflower's provenance is rather murky, originating somewhere around the Mediterranean as a variety of wild cabbage favored for its edible flowers. Over time and with human tinkering, those flowers evolved into what we recognize today. It was likely considered a delicacy before reaching European kitchens via Italy in the 16th century. After that it gained in popularity and spread to North America with colonization. Cauliflower, also known then as "coleflower," is notable for being one of the vegetables planted by the English settlers at Jamestown in Virginia.
But how did cauliflower become a fancier man's cabbage? Turns out that it garnered upmarket status when it graced the tables of kings as a favorite of French monarchs Louis XIV and XV. In fact, Louis XV was so fond of both cauliflower and his mistress Madame du Barry that numerous cauliflower dishes in French cuisine still bear her name.
Turns out cauliflower isn't the easiest vegetable to grow. It has a fussy nature that requires cool temperatures with little fluctuation. Coaxing a perfectly grown head is a bit of an art that needs many variables to harmoniously align.
To start, cauliflower seedlings are transplanted into well-drained, slightly acidic soil. As cauliflowers have a shallow root system, a growing plant will need lots of nutrients in order to survive. Any changes in temperature could prevent the head from growing or make it bitter and inedible. Instead cauliflower must be protected against frost or heat and its broad leaves pinned over its newly formed head. This process of blanching the curd, or keeping the sunlight out, gives cauliflower its characteristic white color and tender flavor. It is ready to harvest when the head is around six to eight inches in diameter. Use a sharp knife to remove the head from the stalk and leaves.
California leads the US in cauliflower production (and most other varieties of produce), since its warm climate allows for year-round cultivation. Industrially grown vegetables, like cauliflower, expose consumers to pesticides and highlights the overuse of chemical fertilizers -- the same fertilizers that create the rich soil cauliflower needs in order to thrive. An alternative is to seek out organically grown cauliflower, especially the kind sold at farmers' markets. Cauliflower is also heavily grown in India and China.
Typically planted in the spring and into the summer, cauliflower is in season from summer into fall. It can be overwintered, which is to say cultivated during the winter months, provided it is protected from freezing.
Cauliflower is packed with Vitamin C as one cup of raw cauliflower provides 85% of your daily recommended value. It is also high in folates, Vitamin K, and Vitamin B6. Cauliflower even makes a healthy alternative to mashed potatoes.
As cauliflower bruises easily, you should look for an even color and a tightly packed head. Apart from its standard white, cauliflower also comes in purple and orange varieties.
Cauliflower will keep for a few weeks if kept dry and covered in the refrigerator. A sealed plastic bag is optimal. If uncovered, cauliflower will start to wilt after a few days.
If you are concerned about critters such as worms and insects hanging out in your organic cauliflower, soak the head in salt water for 30 minutes before cooking. This will remove and kill any unintended protein sources. After soaking, rinse with the head with cool water.
Roasting, boiling and braising are some of the simple ways that cauliflower can be prepared. To cook, use a paring knife to remove the florets from the stalk, which can then be blanched in a pot of boiling water. After a couple of minutes in the boiling water, remove from heat, drain the water and transfer to a bowl large enough to toss florets with sea salt and olive oil. Transfer to baking dish and roast at 425°F for about ten minutes until golden brown. If you're not afraid of leaving in the oven a little longer, a little bit of char gives cauliflower a wonderfully nutty flavor.
Similar to the preparation mentioned previously, cauliflower steaks are a wonderful way to enjoy a "meaty" vegetarian dish that pairs well with seasonal vegetables. Make sure you have at least a 10 inch skillet with a lid. (Shhh, this dish is vegan too.)
One head of cauliflower, leaves removed
Tablespoon of olive oil
Fine sea salt
2 Tablespoons of tahini paste
Wedge of lemon
1 Tablespoon of chopped parsley
Using a sharp knife, make a vertical incision from the top of the head to the base, slicing the cauliflower in half, thirds or fourths to make 1 inch "steaks." Use your knife or a smaller paring knife to trim away any extra leaves or tougher bits of stem from the base.
Heat a tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat, allowing it to coat the pan. Place your cauliflower steaks in the pan, moving them around so they get a quick coat of oil. Sprinkle with a pinch of fine sea salt.
Sear the steaks on one side for three minutes or until golden with flecks of char. Flip the steaks and cover the skillet with a lid, making sure you turn down your heat to medium-low. The steam produced in the covered pan will cook the cauliflower until tender. The charred bits will give the steaks a deliciously nutty flavor, so don't be afraid if things get a little crispy and brown in the pan.
Cook the steaks for five minutes or until tender. Steaks will be ready when you can easily pierce the cauliflower with a knife.
While the steaks are cooking, add tahini paste to a mixing bowl with a squeeze of a lemon wedge. Add a tablespoon of water and mix ingredients with a whisk. This is a little bit of an art verses a precise science. You're aiming for a thin, runny, off-white tahini dressing. Keep adding a dash of water until you reach that consistency. Add more salt or lemon to taste. The tahini plus the nuttiness of the cooked cauliflower creates a very rich and savory flavor.
When the steaks are done, plate and drizzle with tahini dressing. Sprinkle with the chopped parsley. Serve.
This post was originally published in November 2012.