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Cauliflower power

Cauliflower never used to serve up much food for thought. Its pristine pallor causes cauliflower to fade into the background, perhaps for the steamed vegetable melange ubiquitous to so many restaurants.

Then I started gardening. Selecting the year's seeds with the careful consideration of choosing my clothes, I gravitated to the unusual and, above all, colorful.

That's how orange and purple cauliflower claimed a plot in my garden, eventually forcing out the ho-hum broccoli that my mother-in-law always grew. Broccoli basically looks the same, I reasoned, whether from the home garden, farmers market or grocery store. But cauliflower in designer colors is something of a boutique food.

June and July are the months to find plain, white and Technicolor cauliflowers at local farmers and specialty markets. Midsummer also is the time to reseed cauliflower for the winter garden, or plant seedlings in August.

There are several reasons to make cauliflower the focal point of a meal, instead of just a cook's neutral canvas. While all cauliflower is a good source of fiber and vitamin C, orange varieties have 25 times the vitamin A of their colorless counterparts, according to online articles. Purple specimens contain antioxidants known as anthocyanins, the same chemical compounds in brightly colored fruits touted for fighting cancer.

Cold-hardy, cauliflower is available through the winter, but summer is when it comes on strong and — for farmers and gardeners — all at once. Because the vegetable actually is the flowering head of a cruciferous plant, rising temperatures spur cauliflower to bulk up literally overnight. If made to weather too much heat, cauliflower curds will no longer be tight, which is the preferred state for cooking and eating. So pick cauliflower quickly when the mercury climbs.

Happily, freshly harvested cauliflower will keep for at least two weeks in the refrigerator. Stir-frying and roasting are my preferred ways of cooking it. To roast cauliflower, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place florets on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with a few pinches of kosher or sea salt; toss to coat. Roast for about 20 to 25 minutes or until florets are slightly golden.

Another way with copious cauliflower is quick pickling. Add florets to peeled garlic cloves or shallot slices, red-pepper flakes and saffron threads in a vinegar solution. This gives the florets another few months in the refrigerator. Enjoy them in green or pasta salads, pilafs or on an antipasti platter.

I've tried blanching and freezing excess cauliflower but found the resulting texture lackluster, much like the outcome of boiling cauliflower. Cauliflower already contains a lot of water, so a cooking method that uses water dilutes its flavor.

Perhaps it's for this reason that bland, cooked cauliflower became a popular substitute for starches in low-carbohydrate diets. Add a little milk or cream and mash it instead of potatoes. I've even seen so-called "healthy" recipes calling for cooked, chopped cauliflower in place of ricotta cheese.

Yet the ingenuity of replacing pasta with cauliflower fails to impress. Why not cook something else entirely rather than use cauliflower as a mealtime compromise? But this dish masquerading as "mac 'n' cheese" is a valid variation on that British classic "cauliflower cheese." Heighten the visual impact by preparing it with cheddar cauliflower and add savor with nutritional yeast, also delicious on popcorn.

Cauliflower can be prepared in a variety of ways including this recipe for Mac and Cheese style cauliflower. (Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press/MCT) - MCT