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The versatile flower

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Cauliflower is a meaty vegetable with many, many uses
Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS Roasted cauliflower steaks with tomatoes and feta.
Tammy Ljungblad/Kansas City Star/TNS Crispy Cauliflower Bites have the satisfying crunch of tater tots but are easier on the waistline.
Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune/TNS Cauliflower soup is topped with smoked salmon toasts, inspired by a French bistro's version.
Photo by Sarah Lemon Homemade cauliflower steaks

An unlikely shapeshifter, cauliflower uncannily morphs into rice, potatoes, pizza crust, taco fillings, even Buffalo-style wings. And judging from popular recipes and restaurant menus, cooks and consumers haven’t had their fill of this low-carbohydrate, gluten-free, plant-based dietary star.

While interest in cauliflower “steak” peaked a few years back, soaring prices for actual steak could trigger a second cauliflower wave. The cost of beef has rarely been higher at American grocery stores, but the first few months of the year generally favor cauliflower. Prices have been as low as $1 per pound in organic sections at locally owned grocers.

The cauliflower steak bandwagon largely passed me by, given my avoidance of beef as a rule and preference for eating meat just a few times per week. But such attractive prices on cauliflower — and a freezer almost depleted of meat — convinced me to try this technique, beautifully photographed and illustrated in Erin Gleason’s “The Forest Feast” (Abrams, 2014).

If this best-selling vegetarian cookbook can’t convince carnivores to try cauliflower steak, I don’t know what would. And Gleason’s enjoys elevated status as a “cheesesteak.”

First off, let’s agree this isn’t a steak. Nothing remotely like it. This is a dish unto itself that should be prepared, presented and paired with complementary ingredients and supportive side dishes. But if Americans can embrace cauliflower in place of refined carbohydrates for health’s sake, they surely can permit cauliflower to nudge meat off the plate in the name of both body- and budget-consciousness.

The method couldn’t be simpler. Carve 3/4-inch-thick slabs from a head of cauliflower, by cutting down through the florets and stem end, leaving as much of the stem intact as possible.

In a 375-degree oven, roast the “steaks” on an oiled baking sheet for 15 minutes per side, until fork-tender and golden. Salt and pepper each “steak,” then top with 2 tablespoons sliced scallions and 3 tablespoons grated cheddar cheese, or a mixture of sharp cheddar and blue cheese or mozzarella and feta cheese — whatever your mealtime theme suggests. Roast for three more minutes, or until the cheese melts.

Mine cozied up to steamed farro with caramelized onions and sautéed mushrooms, plus a green salad with sliced pears, dried cherries and balsamic vinaigrette. Less enamored than I was, my partner declared it worth eating at least once each winter. But he didn’t lament dinner’s lack of beef steak, either.

Diners who prefer a dairy-free dish can elevate cauliflower steak with numerous sauces and toppings, including salsa verde, pesto, mole, hummus or guacamole. Experiment with the pantheon of fresh herbs, as well as citrus zest and juice, toasted nuts or seeds and sliced chiles. A blank canvas for almost any ethnic seasoning, cauliflower especially loves Middle Eastern za’atar, sumac and harissa.

Give cauliflower a smoky note by char-grilling it. But take this tip from Los Angeles Times test kitchen staff, who attest that “steaks” are prone to falling through grill grates. Instead, quarter a head of cauliflower from top to bottom, leaving the core and leaves intact. Steam it just until it starts to lose its raw edge before brushing with oil and transferring to the grill.

This cauliflower steak gets a boost from Mediterranean flavors. Crispy cauliflower “bites” imitate tater tots. And for those who appreciate cauliflower in familiar form, savor this silky soup.

Roasted Cauliflower Steaks with Tomatoes and Feta

Cooking spray, as needed

2-1/2 tablespoons olive oil, divided

4 cauliflower steaks, cut about 1/2- to 3/4-inch thick

Salt and pepper, to taste

1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped

2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced

1 pint grape tomatoes, quartered

2 teaspoons capers, rinsed and drained

3 tablespoons minced, fresh, flat-leaf parsley

3 tablespoons minced, fresh basil

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar

6 tablespoons reduced-fat feta cheese

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a large baking sheet with some of the cooking spray.

Heat 1 tablespoon of the oil in a large, nonstick skillet over medium high heat. Place 2 cauliflower steaks in a single layer in skillet. Season lightly with the salt and generously with the pepper. Cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until bottom is light golden-brown. Turn steaks over and cook until golden brown on second side. Transfer cauliflower steaks to baking sheet, arranging in a single layer.

Add 1 tablespoon oil to skillet. Add remaining 2 cauliflower steaks, cook as previously directed and place on baking sheet.

Bake cauliflower, uncovered, in preheated oven until just tender, for about 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, return skillet to medium heat. Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to skillet. Add the shallot and cook, stirring frequently, until just tender. Stir in the garlic and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes and cook until hot, for about 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the capers and herbs. Add the vinegars and heat through.

To serve, top each hot, roasted cauliflower steak with about 1/3 cup tomato mixture and sprinkle with 1-1/2 tablespoons of the feta.

Makes 4 servings (tomato topping yields about 1-1/3 cups).

Crispy Cauliflower Bites

Cooking spray, as needed

1/2 medium head cauliflower

2/3 cup shredded cheddar cheese

1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese

1/4 cup all-purpose flour or gluten-free flour

2 large eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a mini muffin tin generously with some of the nonstick cooking spray.

Remove leaves from the cauliflower. You can use inner core for this recipe. Coarsely chop cauliflower and place in bowl of a food processor with steel chopping blade. Pulse food processor until cauliflower is finely chopped. Do not overprocess, or cauliflower will turn into a puree.

Place finely chopped cauliflower into a large mixing bowl. Add the remaining ingredients and stir to blend well. Place a rounded tablespoon of mixture into each mini muffin well. Pat down to form a nugget.

Bake, uncovered, in preheated oven for 15 minutes. Carefully turn each cauliflower bite over and continue to bake for 12 to 15 additional minutes or until bites are crispy brown on both sides.

Serve hot or warm for best flavor. Makes 24 cauliflower bites.

Creamy Cauliflower Soup with Smoked Fish Toasts

2 small or 1 large head (about 3 pounds total) cauliflower, outer leaves removed

3 medium (9 ounces total) golden potatoes, peeled and diced

1 large sweet onion, peeled and diced

2 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed

2 quarts low-sodium chicken broth (or vegetable broth)

1/4 cup whipping cream or creme fraiche

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Salt, to taste

Freshly ground white pepper, to taste

20 slices (each 1/4-inch thick) French baguette, about 6 ounces total

2 to 4 tablespoons olive oil

3 ounces cream cheese, softened

2 or 3 ounces smoked salmon, crumbled into large pieces

Chopped fresh chives, for garnish

Use a large knife to cut the cauliflower heads in half. Cut out tough cores and discard. Roughly chop florets. Put chopped cauliflower, the potatoes, onion and garlic into a large (4- or 5-quart) Dutch oven. Add the broth. Heat to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer, cover loosely and cook until vegetables are fall-apart tender, for 20 to 25 minutes.

Use an immersion blender to puree soup in pot (Or puree soup in small batches in a blender). Add the cream and cayenne; heat soup to a simmer. Season soup with the salt and pepper to taste.

While soup simmers, make toasts. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Brush both sides of the bread slices with some of the oil and place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Bake, turning bread slices over, until golden and crispy, for about 10 minutes.

Divide the cream cheese among toasts and spread cheese while toasts are still warm. Top each toast with a few pieces of the smoked salmon and a sprinkle of the chives.

Serve bowls of soup sprinkled with more chives alongside fish toasts.

Makes 10 cups, 6 servings.

Reach freelance writer Sarah Lemon at thewholedish@gmail.com.