Reconsider the cauliflower
Steak, pizza base, rice, curry, salad . . . is there any end to the brassica’s versatility?
Cauliflower is in season, and lends itself to endless interpretation
When did cauliflower become trendy? Was it when carb-dodgers began pulverising it and turning it into pseudo pizza bases? When cutting it into thick slices and offering it to vegetarians and vegans as a “steak” became a thing? When those gloriously Ottolenghi-esque Instagram images began to surface of whole heads, coated in spices and butter and roasted?
Perhaps it is all down to the cauli “rice” phenomenon, another carb stand-in and one so popular that last summer Trader Joe’s grocery stores in the US implemented a two bags per customer limit, to cope with demand.
Whatever the reason, the big white orbs are having their moment, and now is the best time of year to explore their possibilities. And it is possible to look beyond the tired old cauliflower cheese of yesteryear and exploit the vegetable’s potential – without turning it into a poor version of something else.
Consider using it raw, shaved finely into a winter salad for texture and crunch. This is best done on a mandoline, if you have one. Pomegranate seeds, or plump raisins, and almonds or hazelnuts, make a fine seasonal addition, along with something green and fragrant such as a pile of finely chopped soft herbs, and a dressing that is a sharp (perhaps lemony/capery) counterpoint.
If it is headed for a salad in floret form, the cauliflower is best roasted first. You’ll find a prime example on the Ottolenghi website – roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad. Nigella Lawson’s warm spiced cauliflower and chickpea salad with pomegranate seeds, which she says is one of her favourite supers, is another worth trying.
Cauliflower’s robust texture and bland flavour makes it a blank canvas for curries, Indian accented ones in particular. The one I cook most often, originates with Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall and it is his 2010 recipe for the Guardian newspaper. It is finished with whole milk yoghurt and tomato puree, takes only about 20 minutes to cook and has a rich, deep, soothing flavour – and crucially – florets that still have a bite to them.
If you want to have a go at the whole roasted, spiced head thing, you won’t find a more tempting version than this one from Patrick Hanlon and Russell Alford of GastroGays, which gets its savoury heat from a homemade harissa spice rub and harissa oil, and is then drenched in basil pesto. Isn’t it a thing of beauty? This is definitely a recipe worth bookmarking. Can't you just see it as a vegetarian Christmas dinner option?
Cauliflower pops up regularly in the Irish Times recipe archives too. It makes a fine soup, as evidenced by the roast cauliflower and coconut version from Lilly Higgins, which crowns her reputation as the Queen of Soups.
Chef Gary O’Hanlon goes all, well, cheffy, on us with his cauliflower risotto, egg yolk, chilli nutmeg pangrattato. It’s a useful recipe to have on hand if you have a vegetarian dinner party guest to impress.
Carmel Somers, on the other hand, keeps it simple and wholesome with her one-pot cauliflower and squash stew with chilli, spices and ground nuts. There are a lot of ingredients here, admittedly, but think of the goodness within.
Here are a few cauliflower recipes that might tempt you to pop a creamy white head into your shopping basket this weekend:
Lilly Higgins’s roast cauliflower and coconut soup
2-inch piece fresh ginger
400g tin full-fat coconut milk
400ml stock or water
1. Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. Remove the outer leaves and chop the cauliflower into bite-size florets. Place on a large baking tray.
2. Peel and quarter the onion and place on the tray with the cauliflower. Drizzle everything with one to two tablespoons of olive oil and roast until tender when pierced with a fork and just browning at the edges – about 15 minutes.
3. In batches, blitz the roast vegetables with the ginger and coconut milk until silky smooth. This is best done in a blender for a creamy result. Pour the thick mixture into a saucepan and add the stock. Heat gently and add salt to taste before serving.
Gary O’Hanlon’s cauliflower risotto, egg yolk, chilli nutmeg pangrattato
Half a head of cauliflower
20ml olive oil
Quarter of a nutmeg stone
1-1.2lt chicken stock
2tbsp olive oil
1 knob butter
1 garlic clove, crushed
1 onion, peeled and diced finely
2 celery stalks, peeled and diced finely
400g carnaroli or arborio rice
400ml dry white wine
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
Handful grated Parmesan
Handful chopped parsley
2 large handfuls breadcrumbs
1 small tin anchovies (and the oil)
Quarter of a fresh red chilli, finely chopped
Quarter of nutmeg stone, grated
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Good drizzle of olive oil
6 egg yolks
1. Pangrattato: Blend the breadcrumbs, anchovies, anchovy oil, chilli and nutmeg in a food processor. Heat the oil and cook the mixture until golden. Season with black pepper.
2. Risotto: Brush the cauliflower with the olive oil. Grate the nutmeg over it. Season with salt and black pepper. Wrap in tin-foil and bake at 180 degrees Celsius for 40 minutes. Remove, cut into small florets, set aside. Reserve the stalks.
Heat the oil and butter in a pan. Add the celery, onion, garlic and sweat until soft but without colour. Add the risotto rice and continue to cook, without colouring. When the rice becomes translucent, add the wine, season and reduce.
Add a ladle of hot stock and cook until it evaporates. Keep stirring continuously. Continue to add the stock until it’s gone. If the rice is still a little hard after adding all the stock, add a little boiling water. When the rice is cooked, turn off the heat, stir in the remaining 40g of butter, and cover with a lid for two minutes.
Blend the cauliflower stalks with the mascarpone. Fold the cauliflower mascarpone, parsley, Parmesan and the florets into the risotto. Check seasoning.
3. To serve: Divide into six bowls, top with an egg yolk and sprinkle with pangrattato.
Carmel Somers’s cauliflower and squash stew with chilli, spices and ground nuts
3tsp cumin seeds
2tsp fennel seeds
4tsp dried oregano
4tbs sesame seeds
50g whole almonds
50g cashew nuts
1tsp chilli powder
2 onions, roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
Small piece of fresh ginger
Salt and pepper
1 butternut squash, thickly sliced
500ml vegetable stock
1 head of cauliflower, broken into florets
1 tin of coconut milk
250g frozen peas
250g mushrooms, sliced or whole
Pak choi, shredded
Chopped coriander and mint
This stew is a complete meal in one pot. Feel free to use a mixture of root vegetables or what is lying around in your fridge. With a little effort this dish can be upgraded to dinner party status by serving it with fried polenta squares and a bowl of cucumber salsa dressed with lime juice.
1. Toast the cumin and fennel seeds in a dry pan until they start to brown and the aroma is filling the air. Mix the spices with the oregano and grind.
2. In the same pan toast the sesame seeds until lightly browned, followed by the almonds and cashews. Roughly chop the nuts and mix with the sesame seeds. Roughly process the mixture, remove half (to sprinkle over before serving) while still rough and continue to process the rest to a fine powder.
3. Now puree the onions, garlic, chilli and ginger. Add some oil to a large casserole pan and cook the puree for a few minutes, seasoning well with salt and pepper. Add the ground spice mixture and cook for another minute.
4. Next add the squash and the stock and cook for 15 minutes or until the squash is nearly soft.
5. Add the cauliflower and the powdered nut and seed mixture along with the tin of coconut milk. Bring back to the boil and simmer until the cauliflower is nearly tender. Add the peas and mix in well and allow to simmer for another couple of minutes.
6. In the meantime heat a frying pan until hot, add some oil followed by the mushrooms and season well with salt and pepper. Continue with the heat high until the mushrooms are nicely brown and no liquid remains.
7. To serve, scatter the mushrooms over the stew followed by the chopped nuts, the shredded pak choi and the chopped herbs.