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Cauliflower bursts with flavor

For a long time, I wouldn’t touch cauliflower.
I blame vegetable trays at Fourth of July picnics and graduation parties during my childhood. Raw cauliflower just doesn’t intrigue a child like a crunchy carrot, a celery brimming with flavored cream cheese or those black olives that fit on the end of your fingers.
To me, raw cauliflower was a hunk of dense blandness.
My cauliflower conversion started at a local Mediterranean deli. There was roasted curried cauliflower on the buffet. Despite my negative cruciferous history, I was intrigued enough to try it. It was delicious. That tender cauliflower had soaked up every bit of those flavors.
This winter, I started craving that roasted curried cauliflower and found a recipe online that perfectly replicated it.
Now my budding love for cauliflower has sparked a cooking binge. I have boiled it, roasted it and even sautéed it. I have served it with pasta, served it as steaks and even enjoyed it finely diced and raw in a relish.
Once I started looking, cauliflower was everywhere. Epicurious.com named it one of the top food trends of 2013: “This cruciferous friend is finally taking center plate.” Then New York magazine cited the popularity of cauliflower steaks, writing: “Now it’s cauliflower in the role of Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat.” (The cauliflower is cut in ½-inch slices retaining some of the core so it holds together.)
Locally, I started seeing cauliflower on menus. A cauliflower steak is served on a biscuit with red pepper ragu and goat cheese at Durham’s Rise bakery. Cauliflower in Easter colors of mint green, purple and a pale orange appeared in course after course at Herons restaurant at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, N.C. There cauliflower is served as a chowder with bacon, capers and golden raisins; as a salad, thinly sliced and drizzled with hazelnuts, almonds and parmesan cheese; and as a side dish, blanched, tossed with brown butter and topped with an aged cheddar cheese.
Herons chef Scott Crawford is a cauliflower fan, citing its versatility as an entree, a side or an accent on a dish. “It can be the star, or the texture, or the vehicle,” he said.
When I started poring over cookbooks, I was surprised to see so many dishes from the Mediterranean included cauliflower. I reached out to award-winning cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman for an explanation.
“We do think of other vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant when we think of Mediterranean food, but that’s probably because most people travel from the United States to the Mediterranean in the summer, when those vegetables are in season,” Shulman wrote in an email. “Cauliflower is popular everywhere in the Mediterranean, not just in the winter but year-round.”
Shulman reeled off a litany of dishes: deep-fried cauliflower served with a tahini sauce in the Middle East; simmered cauliflower tagine served with couscous in Tunisia; cauliflower with olives and feta in a hearty Greek stew; pasta with cauliflower, anchovies and saffron in Italy. And then Shulman’s favorite: a French preparation where it’s marinated a la Grecque, with olive oil, lemon, vinegar, coriander seeds and other spices and herbs.

ROASTED CURRIED CAULIFLOWER
Serves 6-8
12 cups cauliflower florets (from about 4 pounds cauliflower)
1 large onion, peeled, quartered
1 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
¾ cup olive oil
½ cup red wine vinegar
3½ teaspoons curry powder
1 tablespoon paprika or Hungarian hot paprika
1¾ teaspoons salt
Freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
Heat oven to 450 degrees. Place cauliflower florets in large roasting pan or rimmed cookie sheet. Pull apart onion quarters into separate layers; add to cauliflower. Stir coriander seeds and cumin seeds in small skillet over medium heat until slightly darkened, about 5 minutes. Crush coarsely in mortar with pestle. Place seeds in medium bowl. Whisk in oil, vinegar, curry powder, paprika and salt. Pour dressing over vegetables; toss to coat. Spread vegetables in single layer. Sprinkle with pepper.
Roast vegetables until tender, stirring occasionally, about 35 minutes. (Can be made 2 hours ahead. Let stand at room temperature. Rewarm in 450-degree oven for 10 minutes, if desired.)
Sprinkle with fresh cilantro. Serve warm or at room temperature.
COOK’S NOTE: I found this recipe while seeking to re-create my favorite cauliflower dish served at Mediterranean delis.
— From epicurious.com

PASTA WITH
CAULIFLOWER AND SPINACH
Serves 4
1 tablespoon salt
1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons minced garlic
1 tablespoon sliced garlic
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
¼ cup chicken stock or vegetable stock
1 bunch fresh spinach (about 3 cups)
1 (28-ounce) can crushed tomatoes
3 tablespoons capers, with 1 tablespoon juice
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 pound paccheri pasta (large tube) approximately 2.5 inches long by 2 inches wide
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley leaves
Bring a large stock pot of water to a boil over medium heat, then add salt and cauliflower. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large sauté pan, and sauté minced and sliced garlic and red pepper flakes for 1 minute. Remove the cauliflower from water with a large strainer and add it to the pan with the garlic-red pepper mixture. Sauté briefly until starting to brown, about 3 to 4 minutes. Deglaze pan with chicken stock, add spinach, cover and let wilt for 2 minutes. Stir in tomatoes and capers with juice and reduce the heat. Remove the cover and let simmer for 5 minutes.
Return cauliflower water to boil, adding more water, if necessary, to cook pasta. Add pasta and cook to al dente. Remove pasta from water and add it to the pan with the sauce, adding a little pasta water, if needed. Stir gently to combine, transfer to a serving bowl and sprinkle with half of the cheese. Garnish with parsley and drizzle the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Serve immediately with remaining cheese on the side.
COOK’S NOTE: Use whatever pasta you prefer.
— From foodnetwork.com

CAULIFLOWER STEAKS WITH OLIVE RELISH AND TOMATO SAUCE
Serves 2-4
1 large head of cauliflower
½ cup pitted oil-packed black olives, finely chopped
3 sun-dried tomatoes, thinly sliced, soaked for 4 minutes in warm water
3½ tablespoons olive oil, divided, plus more
2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 garlic cloves
2 plum tomatoes, cored, quartered
Remove leaves and trim stem end of cauliflower, leaving core intact. Place cauliflower core side down on a work surface. Using a large knife, slice cauliflower into four ½-inch “steaks” from center of cauliflower (some florets will break loose; reserve). Finely chop enough loose florets to measure ½ cup. Transfer chopped florets to a small bowl and mix with olives, sun-dried tomatoes, 1 tablespoon olive oil, parsley and lemon juice. Season relish with salt and pepper.
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a large, heavy, ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Working in 2 batches, cook cauliflower steaks until golden brown, about 2 to 4 minutes per side, adding 1 tablespoon oil to pan between batches. Transfer steaks to a large rimmed baking sheet. Reserve skillet. Roast cauliflower until tender, about 15-18 minutes, turning halfway through.
Return skillet to medium-high heat and add garlic cloves and tomatoes. Cook until tomatoes are browned; turn tomatoes over and transfer skillet to oven with cauliflower. Roast until tender, about 12 minutes.
Transfer garlic, tomatoes and ½ tablespoon oil to a blender; puree until smooth. Season with salt and pepper. Divide tomato sauce among plates. Place 1 cauliflower steak on each plate; spoon relish over. Serve warm or at room temperature.
COOK’S NOTE: Instead of plum tomatoes, sauté 6 tablespoons canned diced tomatoes with diced garlic cloves before pureeing.
— From Bon Appetit magazine, January 2012

Other ways with cauliflower
Make a hearty soup: Remove stem and leaves from one head of cauliflower. Divide into florets. Add to a medium pot with 8 cups of chicken or vegetable broth. Cook until the cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes. Use a potato masher to break into smaller pieces, but do not pulverize. Add 1 cup orzo pasta; cook until tender, following package instructions. If desired, season with fresh cracked pepper. Top each serving with grated parmesan cheese and serve with artisan bread.
Pull together a quick pasta dish: Boil florets from 1 head of cauliflower until tender. Remove with slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, chop into small pieces. Cook 1 pound penne pasta in water used to boil cauliflower. Sauté 1 tablespoon minced garlic with ¼ cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. When garlic is golden, add cauliflower. Turn heat to medium and stir occasionally. Drain pasta when just shy of being done, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Add pasta to skillet. Toss with cauliflower and garlic. Add reserved pasta water. When pasta is done and glazed, season with salt and pepper and add 1 cup breadcrumbs.
Try it a la Grecque: Place florets of cauliflower in a large bowl with enough water to cover and 1 tablespoon white vinegar. Stir and drain. Bring large pot of salted water to boil, add cauliflower. Boil for 5 minutes, then remove cauliflower to a bowl of ice water. Let sit a few minutes and drain. In a large stockpot, combine 1/3 cup lemon juice, ½ cup dry white wine, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 2 sprigs fresh thyme, a bay leaf, 1/3 cup olive oil and ¾ cup water. Bring to a boil and let cook for 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, reduce heat and let simmer for 7 minutes. Remove cauliflower and transfer to a large platter. Season with salt and pepper. Strain cooking liquid and return to the pot. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half. Pour over cauliflower and cool. Serve at room temperature or cold. This can be made up to five days in advance.
Sources: Carole Tanzer Miller, The New York Times, and “Mediterranean Harvest,” by Martha Rose Shulman (Rodale, 2007)

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