All About Cauliflower

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In addition to fish and cabbage, what other food stunk up the house when mom cooked it in the old days - way back in the 60s?

Cauliflower, of course. Is it any wonder, therefore, that many people only eat raw cauliflower these days as part of a vegetable platter? Unfortunately, I don't think raw cauliflower is very appetizing. Yes, it's crunchy, but so are raw potatoes. About the only thing that's less appetizing is the way mom cooked it - to death. Bring on the extra strength Glade and Air-Wick .

In addition to the smell, overcooking also diminishes the nutrients significantly. In fact, you can reduce the levels of some vitamins by cooking them with one method over another. A while back, food writer Mark Bittman quoted a Cornell University study in a New York Times article. It stated that 100 grams of cauliflower had 55 mg of vitamin C after boiling, 70 after steaming, and 82 after being cooked in the microwave oven.

The problem with that smell is chemical. Cauliflower, like broccoli and cabbage, belongs to the cruciferous family of vegetables which has been shown to be effective in fighting certain forms of cancer. But these vegetables also contain sulfur compounds that can smell unpleasant. If you ever made hydrogen sulfide in high school chemistry class, you know what I'm talking about.

The best way to prevent these compounds from turning your kitchen into a chemistry lab is to minimally cook the cauliflower. And instead of using raw cauliflower on your vegetable tray, try cooking it about halfway through. Then refresh the cauliflower in ice water to stop the cooking and keep it from turning gray.

Cauliflower is member of the cabbage family. However, despite its name - which literally means cabbage flower - it is not the flower of the cabbage. Cauliflower is considerably younger than cabbage, originating sometime after the beginning of the common era (the birth of Christ), in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor.

Cauliflower took some time to move west, arriving in France and England in the early 17th century. Its introduction to the United States has been fairly recent. As with broccoli, it was much more popular in ethnic communities, especially with Italians, and was not developed commercially until the 1920s.

Cauliflower still isn't as popular as broccoli. Part of this may be price. A head of cauliflower is rarely as cheap as a head of broccoli. And part of it may be the color - or the absence of color. That may be remedied as purple and green varieties become more widely available.

Cauliflower likes cool, moist areas. So the foggy coastal climates of the California central coast are prime cauliflower growing areas.

Not surprisingly, California is the leading supplier. Arizona, New York, Michigan, Oregon and Texas also produce cauliflower. Cauliflower is imported from Canada and Mexico as well.

Ninety percent of the cauliflower in markets is the familiar pure-white type. Most cauliflower comes packed by size - 6, 9, 12 or 16 per case with the size 16 about five inches across. Occasionally size will be as small as 20 per case. This is especially favored by the Japanese. Baby cauliflower, as the name implies, is a miniature version of regular cauliflower - about two inches in diameter. But it is rare, more likely seen at 4-star restaurants than at retail markets, even upscale ones.

Romanesco is a yellow-green cauliflower variety with spiraled florets that make it look like a headdress for a Siamese princess. It has a milder flavor than regular cauliflower. Look for it in specialty markets.
Broccoflower is the brand name of a strain of cauliflower developed commercially by Tanimura & Antle Inc., a Salinas, Calif. grower, which brought seeds to the United States from Holland.

Broccoflower has the green color of broccoli all the way through but it tastes like cauliflower, though somewhat sweeter. There are other versions of green cauliflower, sometimes incorrectly called Broccoflower the way tissues are sometimes called Kleenex. Some of these other versions may not have green color all the way through but may just have a green head.

Cauliflower is grown year round but the best time for uniform quality and price is late fall. The worst time to buy cauliflower is in the middle of the summer. Broccoflower is also available year round but in far fewer quantities. Romanesco is available from September to December.

Choose cauliflower with white or creamy white, tightly packed heads (also called curds) and no loose or spreading florets. Heads may have a purplish tint but it will not effect flavor. Avoid any heads with black specks, browning or other blemishes. (Though in a pinch, these defects can sometimes be trimmed off if the rest of the cauliflower looks okay.)

Size has nothing to do with quality. Sometimes heads will display a slightly granular appearance but, again, this is not a sign of quality.

Since most cauliflower is packed in plastic wrap, you'll have to work a little bit to inspect what are called the jacket leaves, the greens that wrap the bottom and sides of the cauliflower like giant hands. They should be green and fresh-looking without yellowing or withering. Another indicator is the firmness of the bottom. If it is soft, the cauliflower is over the hill.

Wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in the crisper section of the refrigerator, cauliflower will last about five days but should be used within three.

Most of the same great nutritional benefits found in cabbage and broccoli are contained in cauliflower. In addition, a 99 gram (about 3.5 ounces, about 1/6 of a head) serving of cauliflower has 25 calories, 5 grams of carbohydrates, 2 grams each of dietary fiber and protein, 100 % of the RDA for vitamin C and 2% each for calcium and iron. Cauliflower is also a good source of potassium. Broccoflower or green cauliflower has roughly the same nutritional profile as white cauliflower.

One medium-size head (about 11/2 pounds) will serve 4 people.

This tip actually comes from Craig Claiborne's The New York Times Food Encyclopedia. If you re having a problem with cooked cauliflower turning dark, Claiborne suggests adding a cup of milk to
the cooking water.

Remove the jacket of leaves which, if very fresh, can be cooked by themselves like a hearty green such as collards. Core out the stem. Then cut the cauliflower in florets, much like broccoli, though the stem is less usable than the broccoli stem.

The florets can be steamed, which takes between 12 and 15 minutes, or microwaved, which takes 8 to 10 minutes. Remember, shorter cooking is better for nutrients and the smell of your kitchen.

For stir-frys and in salads, cook the cauliflower about halfway, then refresh in cold water. Cauliflower tends to get mucked up in cheese sauces and the like. I prefer lighter sauces such as lemon butter with chives. In addition to putting florets in omelets (see Cauliflower Frittata), try them in quiches. And if you can spare the calories, breaded and fried cauliflower can be delicious (see recipe section).

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This was a staple in the Gugino household on Fridays and especially during Lent. Other vegetables such as asparagus, broccoli, and dandelion can be substituted.

5 whole eggs plus three egg whites
3 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon chopped fresh mint, 1 teaspoon dried
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, 1 teaspoon dried
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper taste
3 cups steamed cauliflower florets
2 teaspoons butter

1)Combine eggs, whites, cheese and seasonings in a mixing bowl. Mix well and stir in cauliflower. Turn oven to broil.

2)Put butter in a non-stick skillet over medium-low heat until hot - when it stops sizzling. Add egg mixture and reduce heat to as low as possible. When the eggs are set on the bottom but the top is still slightly runny, put the pan under the broiler at least six inches from the flame. Cook 1 to 2 minutes or until just set. Be careful not to overcook. Turn the pan to cook evenly. When done, remove from the broiler and slide onto a plate. Let cool until warm or room temperature and cut into 4 wedges.
Serves 4.

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Giardiniera is a pickled vegetable melange familiar to Italian-Americans. This is a salad variation of that dish. You can leave out the shrimp and make this a side vegetable salad for 6 people.

1 small to medium head cauliflower, about 1 1/4 pounds, separated into small florets
1 pound peeled and trimmed carrots, cut into 1/4-inch slices
24 pearl onions, peeled
1 red bell pepper, cored and cut into thin strips
12 ounces shrimp, peeled
Kosher salt
1/4 cup chopped parsley
2 tablespoons rice vinegar
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 teaspoon each fennel and coriander seeds, ground
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Hot pepper flakes to taste
Pinch sugar

1)Steam vegetables in 1/2-inch of water over a steamer basket in a covered large saucepan or small kettle until vegetables are tender but still firm, about 15 to 20 minutes. Refresh briefly under cold water. (Vegetables should not be completely cooled). Drain.

2)Meanwhile, cook shrimp in 1 quart of boiling water and 1 teaspoon of salt for 3 or 4 minutes. Drain, let cool slightly, and cut into 1/2 to 1 inch pieces.

3)Put vegetables in a bowl with shrimp and parsley. Combine remaining ingredients with salt to taste. Pour over mixture and toss well and serve at room temperature or refrigerate. Bring to room temperature to serve.

Serves 4.

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The onions add a natural sweetness and the toasted pine nuts give richness without lots of fat. Oh, if only mom had cooked cauliflower this way.

11/2 tablespoons butter
2 large or 3 small to medium red onions (about 1 pound), thinly sliced
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 head cauliflower (about 11/2 pounds) separated into florets
2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts

1)Put butter in a heavy bottomed skillet over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring periodically, until the onions are a deep golden color, about 20 minutes. (The longer the onion cooks the more frequently it needs to be stirred.) Add balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper. Cook until most of the moisture evaporates and onions are deep brown, about 5 minutes.

2)Meanwhile, steam (12 to 15 minutes) or microwave (8 to 10 minutes) the cauliflower until tender but still firm.

3)Put cauliflower on a platter and top with caramelized onions. Sprinkle with pine nuts.

Serves 4 to 6.

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If you think pure white cauliflower is boring, try give it a dye job with pomegranate sauce.

1 head cauliflower
2 pomegranates
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or mint for garnish

1)Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut the cauliflower into good-sized flowerets so they won't cook so quickly. Set aside.

2)Remove seeds from pomegranate as indicated in Note below. Set seeds aside for garnish.

3)Combine any pomegranate juice with the olive oil, lemon juice, cayenne, salt, and pepper in a small roasting pan with a tight lid. Add the cauliflower, toss well to coat. Bake 25 minutes or until cauliflower is tender, tossing once during the cooking.

4)Remove cauliflower to a serving platter and keep warm. Strain the sauce from the roasting pan into a saucepan. Add the sugar and heat with until the sauce becomes syrupy. Pour over the cauliflower, sprinkle with the reserved pomegranate seeds, then with cilantro or mint.

Serves 4.

Sam's Cooking Tip: To remove the seeds from the pomegranate, cut the crown or calyx off the top and lightly score the rind in several places. Break the sections apart, separating the seeds from the white membranes, which are bitter. (Do this over a colander set into a large bowl to catch any juices.)

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