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What's not to love about cauliflower?

(ran NP edition)

There are two types of people in the world: those who love cauliflower and everyone else. Pitiable, those poor souls who were served overcooked mush as a child and who now associate such unkind adjectives as malodorous and yucky with the mere mention of cauliflower.

What's not to love about this cruciferous cousin of the cabbage? Its appearance is lovely. Its name is elegant (from the Latin caulis, meaning stalk, and floris, meaning flower), and it has a slightly sweet, nutty flavor that stands on its own but also marries well with many other flavors.

HOW TO BUY IT: Cauliflower is available year-round in supermarkets, though it is in season late fall through early spring.

Vivid green and purple cauliflower varieties are rare but have been seen in some produce sections. When buying the more-common white- or cream-colored heads, which may or may not have a touch of green or violet around the edges, pass by any whose florets are tinged with brown or whose leaves are slightly yellowed. The head should be compact. Size has little _ if anything _ to do with quality and flavor, but the cauliflower should feel heavy for its size.

HOW TO STORE IT: Raw cauliflower may be refrigerated, unwashed and wrapped tightly in plastic, for three to five days. Cooked cauliflower may be refrigerated for one to three days.

HOW TO CLEAN IT: The entire flower, or curd, is edible. Many profess that the pale green leaves are delicious, but most people prefer to remove the darker green leaves.

Turn the cauliflower upside down and cut around the stem to remove. If you wish to keep the head intact, cut in the shape of an inverted cone so as not to disconnect the florets.

Soak the cauliflower in cold, salted water for 15 to 20 minutes. Rinse with cold water.

HOW TO PREPARE IT: As with many cruciferous vegetables, the longer the cooking time, the stronger and more unpleasant the flavor and aroma. Serve cauliflower lightly steamed and drizzled with melted butter or olive oil and freshly ground black pepper or add the cauliflower to a generous amount of boiling water and cook just until tender _ 20 to 30 minutes for the entire head or 5 to 10 minutes for florets.

On occasion, acidic tannins react with the alkali in hard water and turn the vegetable slightly pink or even a brown. The solution? Use bottled water or add about 1 cup of milk or 1 teaspoon of lemon juice to the boiling water for the whitest cauliflower youhave ever laid eyes upon.

Beyond simple steaming or boiling, the options are many: pureed, sauteed, baked.

How do you like it?

Low fat? Grab lemon juice.

Retro? Serve raw or blanched (dunked in boiling water for 30 to 60 seconds) with a dip.

Jazzy? Cauliflower is friendly to many herbs, spices, seasonings and cheeses including garlic, curry, brown butter, olives, red pepper flakes, parsley, cumin, nutmeg as well as Parmesan, Gruyere and blue cheeses.

Kid-friendly? Top it with buttered bread crumbs.

Incognito? Sneak it into mashed potatoes. Simply substitute cauliflower for up to half the potatoes. Boil the vegetables in the same pot and mash as usual.

Also, try cauliflower au gratin. Steam it then top with bechamel sauce, grated Gruyere and nutmeg and heat in a 350-degree oven until warmed through.

Trendy? Boil or steam the florets just until tender but not mushy, about 3 minutes. Drain and saute over medium heat in a touch of oil until just barely crisp.

Visually stunning? Try cauliflower puree topped with caviar.

Dramatic? Spread the whole head with your favorite compoundbutter, cover with foil and bake in a 350-degree oven until tender, about 75 minutes.

Comfort food? You can't go wrong with cream of cauliflower soup, or veloute du Barry, so named for the mistress of Louis XV. Legend has it that she had an unmistakable passion for the vegetable. To this day a la Barry or du Barry is a tip-off that a dish includes cauliflower.