There exists in the world of chefs and food writers a kind of collective consciousness in which like-minded souls simultaneously but independently develop an enthusiasm for an overlooked or little-known ingredient. They start using it and writing about it, word spreads and the ingredient takes centre stage. Social media has of course speeded up the process, but it used to happen even in olden pre-internet days. I well remember when Puy lentils and smoked paprika, for example, emerged from obscurity and became must-have ingredients.
Along with avocado toast and fermented foods, cauliflower has long enjoyed such moments. Sometimes scarcely a day goes by without a tweet or instagram posting singing its praises. There was even a major article in the political magazine The Economist, entitled 'The King of Cauliflowers', waxing lyrical about a special variety from Palestine. Well worth a read.
I'm a long-term fan of this national treasure, though Mark Twain sneered at is as "nothing but cabbage with a college education". It's a surprisingly versatile vegetable that will feed you generously and well. It's an understated star in pasta and risotto, curries and stir-fries, soups and salads. As a main or side dish, it can be grilled, roasted or steamed (rather than boiled which can result in unwelcome sogginess). When spanking fresh – and only then – it is delicious raw, either as a crudité dipped in an emollient sauce, or finely grated into a tabouleh-like salad.
Cauliflower definitely benefits from the rich flavours of dairy products and tomatoes, as well as contrasting crisp textures. Roasting or frying really concentrate the flavour, and avoids the institutional smell that tends to pervade when cauliflower is boiled or steamed.
One of my favourite dishes is Pan-Fried Cauliflower with Herbs and Lemon. Steamed florets are sizzled in a copious amount of butter with garlic, lemon zest and a lively herb such as thyme, chives or even lovage if you can get hold of it. (Lovage is easy to grow but for some reason isn't sold in the shops.) Do give the recipe a try.
Also good is Mediterranean-style cauliflower. Gently fry onions, garlic and tomatoes until well amalgamated, then pour the resulting sauce over a quartered steamed cauliflower. Add pitted black olives and a topping of breadcrumbs, olive oil, chopped flat leaved parsley and seasoning. Bake in a hot oven until the topping is crisp.
As well as familiar creamy white, cauliflower comes in glorious colours – glowing purple, orange and the curious acid green 'Romanesco' with its spiralling curds. When buying cauliflower, remember that freshness is key.
The curds should be tightly packed with no hint of flabbiness, stems sprightly, leaves green and positively squeaking with life.
© Christine McFadden, March 2018