There’s a lot you can do with a cauliflower. It’s a fact that cauliflower is happy in the company of most flavoursome cheeses. In deepest darkest winter, a cauliflower soup, creamy and rich, with garlicky croutons or crumbled blue cheese on top, gets rid of the chills. Cauliflower wasn’t roasted in my mother’s days, but it works a treat when tossed with garlicky oil, roasted for 20 or so minutes in a hot oven and finished with parmesan cheese.
And, yep, there’s a reason why cauliflower cheese was invented: it just tastes good. More follows below.
Cauliflower also tastes good blanched and tossed in browning butter, or in a fruity extra virgin olive oil. If cooking in oil, stick with grassy tasting herbs such as flat-leaf parsley, and add a scrape or two of lemon zest to keep things fresh. If cooking in browning butter, throw in a few sage leaves and let their pungent spice flavour the oil. A few fresh bay leaves thrown in the water as cauliflower cooks will neutralise the cooking smell with their sweetness (opening a window also helps!).
Cauliflower curried any which way is always good. It provides bulk and structure to a curry and holds its shape, just as it does in a stir-fry. Base a vegetarian curry on onion, garlic, ginger and chilli and add in turmeric, cumin, coriander and fennel seeds, and add cauliflower and vegetables of your choice. Leave the fat stems on the florets as they absorb all the spices, and don’t forget to add masses of chopped coriander (cilantro) at the end to bring a grassy citrusy note. Cauliflower & Potato Curry Dal with Cauliflower
Florets can be added to vegetable soups, or make a chunky soup with a base of softened shallot, garlic and ginger, masses of cauliflower, and good stock. Cook cauli until squishable, then mash roughly, or to give body but keep texture – always a good trick for a soup – whiz half in a food processor and blend back into the soup. Finish with cream or crème frâiche and serve with cheesy crusts or garlicy bruschetta, or top soup with crumbled blue cheese.
It’s a fairly mild tasting vegetable and gets a welcome flavour kick from salty additions such as anchovies and olives. Tangy ingredients like capers, verjuice, crisp white wines and citrus bring fresh and bright notes. While a quick blanch in boiling salted water is the starting point for some recipes using cauliflower, it doesn’t need to be cooked in water and can be steam-fried, cooking in just a little white wine or stock, and olive oil.
Back in the day cauliflower never saw the inside of an oven unless it was smothered in sauce. Fancy missing out on roasted cauliflower! Massage florets with extra virgin olive oil, season well with sea salt, sprinkle with lemon zest and your favourite spices, and roast on high until golden, turning the florets once or twice. Roasted Cauliflower Salad
Florets can also be added to a vegetable tray bake but use a shallow roasting tin and place cauliflower near edges of tin; if they are tumbled one piece on top the other they will steam. Luca’s Traybake of Vegetables Not that there’s anything wrong with steamed cauliflower. A quick steam and served with a spicy peanut sauce and sprinkle of crisp golden shallots and you have a scrumptious accompaniment to lamb cutlets or satay. Cauliflower with Spicy Peanut Sauce
And think wintery salads, too: Cauliflower Salad with Mandarins & Fried Almonds with a tahini, yoghurt and pomegranate syrup sauce is sensationaland Green Cauliflower Salad is pretty to look at but loaded with punchy flavours of capers, sherry vinegar and a sprinkle of chilli flakes.
Of course, you can go raw. Cauli’s got a good peppery bite and sliced thinly adds crunch to a salad. Make a slaw with thinly shaved red cabbage, carrot and cauliflower. Toss with a pungent dressing of chilli-infused oil, lime zest and juice, fish sauce, garlic, shredded mint leaves and Asian basil. Top with crushed peanuts and a dusting of sea salt and chilli powder. Stuff it into bread rolls with roasted or slow-cooked pork belly, or serve as a side with fish. Or you could grate cauli and make it into a crunchy couscous look-alike. Or turn it into a quick pickle.
Perhaps best of all is fried cauliflower. Oh lordy. It’s addictive. Fried Cauliflower with Olives & Herbs is one of my all-time faves. Cutting a whole cauliflower into thick slabs, coating in crumbs and frying until golden and crisp is pretty delicious, too. Cauliflower Steaks with Quick Olive Hummus
But after all these ideas I wonder if there is anything better than a bubbling cauldron of cheesy gorgeousness – yep, I’m talking about Cauliflower Cheese. It’s true, many sins have been committed under its name… watery concoctions with grey thin sauce and sloshy cauliflower tasting insipid and bland with a tough blanket of greasy cheese on top. Stop it! Give the dish some love! (that’s my ‘yelly’ voice coming out.) Cauliflower cheese is one of the great home-baked comfort dishes of our time and deserves a place in the repertoire of family mid-week cooking alongside jacket-baked potatoes, macaroni cheese and thick vegetable and barley soup made with bacon bones. I think so, anyway. And weird as it may sound, these are the types of dishes that chefs who fancy-up tiddly platters of this and that long for and delve into when they go home to mum.
There are plenty of tips to help make a golden dish of bubbling cauliflower cheese. In a nutshell: Undercook cauliflower keeping it firm. Drain well and dry off on paper towels to minimise release of water during cooking.
Make sauce on the thick side as it thins during cooking. Give it oomph with mustard and freshly grated nutmeg.
Use tasty cheddar in sauce and sprinkle more on top. Finish with a dusting of smoked paprika – it adds layers of favour and makes the top more golden.
An even more delicious version is to roast the cauliflower whole and to serve the sauce separately. OMG this is the cauliflower cheese of cauliflower cheeses!
Roasted Cauliflower with Smoked Paprika & Fennel Seeds
The important thing with cauliflower is to buy it fresh and to use it fresh (the sniff test is always reliable – if it smells, choose something else for dinner). Look for compact white heads with fresh pale green leaves nestling around them. As cauliflower ages, it changes to a cream colour, then develops little pin-head brown spots. Keep refrigerated until ready to use. Avoid yellowing, floppy or withered cauliflower as it will smell bad when cooking, and long after cooking, too. Too long in the pot will also break down the sulphur compounds in cauliflower and make it smell.
Broccoflower, a green variety that has a lovely sweet nutty taste, pops up from time to time. It’s a hybrid of cauliflower and broccoli as the name suggests, and is more nutritious than white cauliflower. As for purple cauliflower? It turns green after cooking, and a dull green at that. Oh well, maybe it is one to use in raw in slaw where its colour will shine, especially alongside the newish pinky-gold variety. As for the inspiration for Jean Paul Gaultier’s pointy corsets worn by Madonna in the 80s, look no further than the curiously pointy tips of Romanesco cauliflower, a delicate and nutty tasting variety.
Cauliflower is a good source of Vitamin C and contains Vitamin K, folate and potassium and fibre. Try to include the tender green leaves that nestle around the curd (that’s the name for the white part of the cauliflower) in dishes as they are more nutritious.