The family of cruciferous vegetables seems to be taking turns with its members, thrusting one or two into the spotlight at a time for its 15 minutes of fame. We've had Brussels sprouts every which way and kale found its way onto all our plates. • Now, cauliflower takes the stage. • Yes, I'm talking about the paler, less popular — though that's less true lately — cousin of broccoli. The variety most commonly found is a creamy white color, but more and more you'll find it in shades of purple, orange and bright green. Romanesco, a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower, is especially striking with its fractal-like clusters and lime green color.
With all these options, let's skip the boil and the steam. We don't live with our parents anymore and neither does cauliflower. This little vegetable is far more worldly than it was during its days as an unassuming side we could feel good about eating.
Pickled. Sauteed. Chopped. Marinated. Shaved. Grated. Fried. Raw. Roasted, whole or in florets. Mashed. Seared. Drenched in Buffalo sauce and served as sumptuously as chicken wings.
Cauliflower is having way more fun, and its adaptability is part of the reason for its prevalence on restaurant menus, food blogs and in home kitchens.
At O.E. Market at Oxford Exchange in Tampa, crisp bits of cauliflower are tucked into a turkey and cranberry goat cheese sandwich, and the roasted cauliflower with walnut bread crumbs, pickled raisins, and brown butter was a standout dish when we visited the Rooster and the Till restaurant in Seminole Heights.
Chef Jessica Wafford at Boca in South Tampa said she didn't care for cauliflower when she was growing up, but now she could eat it every day and is serving it in all kinds of inventive ways. A tandoori-style cauliflower smoked for four hours went over very well with customers, and she said a puree with truffle and haricots verts (French green beans) was wildly successful. Part of the reason she hired her new sous chef, she said, is his cauliflower gratin acumen.
"We're taking things back to how we had them as kids but revamping them and making them exciting," Wafford said. "I like cauliflower because it can take on any flavor and it can be used in any way."
Though its flavor is mild, almost sweet, it's strong enough to take on bold flavors.
Deborah Madison, known for her seasonal and vegetable-focused cooking, lists in her cookbook, Vegetable Literacy, favorable flavor combinations for cauliflower that include mustard, horseradish, lemon, capers, garlic; watercress, leeks; parsley, cumin, coriander, caraway, saffron; and coconut milk and curry spices.
At Pearl in the Grove in Dade City, fresh and in-season cauliflower was recently served with lavender, brown butter and pecans. Chef and owner Curtis Beebe said the popularity of ingredients certainly comes in waves, and cauliflower and other gluten-free alternatives are gaining traction with diners.
And, since it is generally available year-round, a new cauliflower recipe could grace your table every day of the week.
Look for heads of cauliflower that are uniform in color with tight clusters requiring a knife to break apart. Keep cauliflower wrapped in the fridge and try to use in three to five days. Keep it any longer and you may find a few brown spots. Trim off those parts with a knife. Heads of cauliflower vary in size, but those weighing 1 ½ or 2 pounds should work in most recipes requesting one head.
To break cauliflower into florets, start by trimming the green leaves that cradle the bottom of the vegetable. Then cut the head lengthwise into quarters and use a sharp knife to break each section into florets, cutting away from the stalk. If you find a particularly fresh head of cauliflower, try cooking it whole or cut it into thick slabs and serve as "steaks" to show off its shape.
Those following a gluten-free or paleo diet have found an ally in cauliflower with its nutritional value and resourcefulness in the kitchen. There are countless recipes online for cauliflower standing in as pizza crust, mashed potatoes, rice and even tortillas. It's high in fiber, low in calories and is known for its cancer-fighting compounds.
Which crucifer will snag the spotlight next? Well, there's always turnips — or even kohlrabi.
Ileana Morales writes the In Our Kitchen column for the Taste section. It publishes on the first and third Wednesdays of the month. She also blogs at alittlesaffron.com.