Crazy for cauliflower

This versatile vegetable virtually bursts with flavor — sautéed, roasted or fried
Roasted Curried Cauliflower. (Juli Leonard/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT)MCT

For a long time, I wouldn't touch cauliflower.

I blame vegetable trays at Fourth of July picnics and graduation parties during my childhood. Raw cauliflower just doesn't intrigue a child like a crunchy carrot, a celery brimming with flavored cream cheese or those black olives that fit on the end of your fingers.

Other ideas for cauliflower

Make a hearty soup. Remove stem and leaves from one head of cauliflower. Divide into florets. Add to a medium pot with 8 cups of chicken or vegetable broth. Cook until the cauliflower is tender, about 20 minutes. Use a potato masher to break into smaller pieces, but do not pulverize. Add 1 cup orzo pasta; cook until tender, following package instructions. If desired, season with fresh cracked pepper. Top each serving with grated Parmesan cheese and serve with artisan bread.

Pull together a quick pasta dish. Boil florets from 1 head of cauliflower until tender. Remove with a slotted spoon. When cool enough to handle, chop into small pieces. Cook 1 pound penne pasta in water used to boil cauliflower. Saute 1 tablespoon minced garlic with 1„4 cup olive oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. When garlic is golden, add cauliflower. Turn heat to medium and stir occasionally. Drain pasta when just shy of being done, reserving 1 cup of cooking water. Add pasta to skillet. Toss with cauliflower and garlic. Add reserved pasta water. When pasta is done and glazed, season with salt and pepper and add 1 cup breadcrumbs.

Try it a la Grecque. Place florets of cauliflower in a large bowl with enough water to cover and 1 tablespoon white vinegar. Stir and drain. Bring large pot of salted water to boil, add cauliflower. Boil for 5 minutes, then remove cauliflower to a bowl of ice water. Let sit a few minutes and drain. In a large stockpot, combine 1„3 cup lemon juice, 1„2 cup dry white wine, 2 teaspoons coriander seeds, 2 teaspoons fennel seeds, 1 teaspoon black peppercorns, 2 sprigs fresh thyme, a bay leaf, 1„3 cup olive oil and 3„4 cup water. Bring to a boil and let cook for 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, reduce heat and let simmer for 7 minutes. Remove cauliflower and transfer to a large platter. Season with salt and pepper. Strain cooking liquid and return to the pot. Bring to a simmer and reduce by half. Pour over cauliflower and cool. Serve at room temperature or cold. This can be made up to five days in advance.

To me, raw cauliflower was a hunk of dense blandness.

My cauliflower conversion started at a local Mediterranean deli. There was roasted, curried cauliflower on the buffet. Despite my negative cruciferous history, I was intrigued enough to try it. It was delicious. That tender cauliflower had soaked up every bit of those flavors.

This winter, I started craving that roasted, curried cauliflower and found a recipe online that perfectly replicated it.

Now my budding love for cauliflower has sparked a cooking binge. I have boiled it, roasted it and even sautéed it. I have served it with pasta, served it as steaks and even enjoyed it finely diced and raw in a relish.

Once I started looking, cauliflower was everywhere. named it one of the top food trends of 2013: "This cruciferous friend is finally taking center plate." Then New York magazine cited the popularity of cauliflower steaks, writing: "Now it's cauliflower in the role of Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat." (The cauliflower is cut in 1/2-inch slices retaining some of the core so it holds together.)

I started seeing cauliflower on Southern menus. A cauliflower steak is served on a biscuit with red-pepper ragu and goat cheese at Durham's Rise bakery. Cauliflower in Easter colors of mint green, purple and a pale orange appeared in course after course at Herons restaurant at The Umstead Hotel & Spa in Cary, N.C. There, cauliflower is served as a chowder with bacon, capers and golden raisins, as a salad, thinly sliced and drizzled with hazelnuts, almonds and Parmesan cheese, and as a side dish, blanched, tossed with brown butter and topped with an aged cheddar cheese.

Herons chef Scott Crawford is a cauliflower fan, citing its versatility as an entree, a side or an accent on a dish. "It can be the star, or the texture, or the vehicle," he said.

When I started poring over cookbooks, I was surprised to see so many dishes from the Mediterranean included cauliflower. I reached out to award-winning cookbook author Martha Rose Shulman for an explanation.

"We do think of other vegetables like tomatoes and eggplant when we think of Mediterranean food, but that's probably because most people travel from the United States to the Mediterranean in the summer, when those vegetables are in season," Shulman wrote in an email. "Cauliflower is popular everywhere in the Mediterranean, not just in the winter but year-round."

Shulman reeled off a litany of dishes: deep-fried cauliflower served with a tahini sauce in the Middle East, simmered cauliflower tagine served with couscous in Tunisia, cauliflower with olives and feta in a hearty Greek stew, pasta with cauliflower, anchovies and saffron in Italy. And then Shulman's favorite: a French preparation where it's marinated a la Grecque, with olive oil, lemon, vinegar, coriander seeds and other spices and herbs.

It seems my cruciferous conversion is only bound to grow.

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