If the word “cauliflower” makes you shudder, trust me: this recipe will change your mind.
Until a few years ago, I myself couldn’t bear the idea of eating the much-maligned vegetable, unless it was sitting on a crudite platter, preferably within easy reach of a tangy dip.
I blame this entirely on my school lunchroom where, as often as not, cauliflower emerged from the kitchen in a cloud of noxious fumes. On the plate it was mushy, a pale mound of mystery vegetable sitting in a puddle of repellent cooking liquid. On the rare occasion that it made its way into my mouth, that bitter, boiled cabbage-like taste made me shudder to my core.
Now of course cool-season, cruciferous vegetables are all the rage, partly because we know their cancer-fighting compounds are good for us. Even more important, we know that cooking these vegetables lightly—roasting them quickly in the oven, or simmering them in a homemade broth, for instance—will bring out their delicate, if elusive, sweetness.
My own turning point was a dish that B and I have come to adore: Indonesian Cauliflower Soup from Ken Hom’s Asian Vegetarian Feast, a short but remarkable book replete with easy, delicious recipes. In this one, bite-size florets are gently simmered until tender in a rich chicken broth flavored with onion and garlic briefly sautéed with ground coriander and cumin seed. A handful of noodles are added to the pot and when they are done, the soup is sprinkled with fresh chopped coriander.
I cannot tell you if this is really an Indonesian soup, but I can assure you that it has made true believers of the anti-cauliflower brigade in our house.
Cauliflower is actually an ancient vegetable. In his culinary encyclopedia, Food, Waverly Root notes that it may have originated in Asia Minor before crossing the Mediterranean to become a staple of the early Roman kitchen. After vanishing during the Dark Ages, it resurfaced on a 16th century list of “new vegetables” published in the German duchy of Wurttemberg. During the reign of Louis XIV it became popular in France (where it was known as chou fleur, or “cabbage flower”) and later achieved the royal imprimatur when a robust consommé of veal, oxtails and cauliflower was named for Louis XV’s mistress, Madame Du Barry.
From that brief pinnacle, it was a precipitous decline to cheese sauces and the crudite platter.
A few facts: This often unloved vegetable is a member in good standing of the Brassica or cabbage family, a rainbow coalition that includes vegetables as diverse as Brussel sprouts, kale and broccoli. According to food scientist Harold Magee, its unusual shape results from a sort of genetic mutation “in which the normal development of flower stalks and flowers is arrested, so that the immature flowering tissues proliferate and accumulate into large masses.”
In other words, think of it as a gigantic flower bud gone wrong.
The masses are also referred to as “curd.” Like other cabbage family members, cauliflower harbors defensive chemicals that, when released by cutting or heating, generate “bitter, pungent, and strong-smelling compounds.” It is said that the dreadful odor inspired the lethal mustard gas used in World War I.
Yet, if you nibble the crumbly florets of fresh young raw cauliflower, you cannot help but notice how sweet- and mild-tasting it is. Gentle roasting amplifies these pleasing traits—and if you happen to run across some of the more colorful members of the family, you’ll find that there are subtle taste differences.
The other day I was stopped in my tracks by piles of rainbow-hued cauliflower at one of our local markets: Not only were there the usual creamy heads, but also ones that had stunning lime green, dark gold and violet curds.
Later I discovered that each of these has a special characteristic or two. The purple-hued cauliflower—sold under names like Sicilian Violet and Violet Queen—gets its color from anthocyanin, an antioxidant also found in red wine and red cabbage. The golden variety, also known as cheddar cauliflower, is the result of a mutation bred in Canada. (The name refers to the color rather than the taste which isn’t at all cheesy.) The green is a hybrid broccoli cross whose curd is crisper and crunchier than other cauliflowers.
I knew I wanted to roast all these brassicas together for the vibrant colors alone, but also knew that I wanted to add a medley of palate-pleasing flavors. I debated a simple vinaigrette with herbs, as well as a Sicilian version with capers and raisins. But then one of those lucky intersections occurred.
While in Denver a few weeks ago, I fell for an appetizer of mixed olives with whole cloves of garlic and preserved Meyer lemon at Mercantile, a hot restaurant in the city’s revamped Union Station. The olives were stunning: a combination of briny Kalamata, buttery Castelvetrano, and tangy yellow-green Mount Athos from Greece’s Halkidiki penninsula, they were slow-roasted with the garlic and lemon—a process which not only enhanced the olives but also brought all the flavors together in an exciting way.
The salty, tangy, umami-rich taste of this dish, which we ate with homemade charcuterie, was still ricocheting around in my head while I unpacked the Technicolor cauliflower. I had a hunch that somehow the same ingredients would work with the roasted vegetable—and this time, I wasn’t wrong.
But don’t take my word for it: Try the recipe—and see if it doesn’t transform the much maligned chou fleur into a feast fit for a king, or at the very least, a king’s mistress.
Irresistible Cauliflower with Roasted Olives, Preserved Lemon & Garlic Cloves
If you can’t find the colorful cauliflower I used in this dish, the creamy white variety works just as well. Go here to see Paula Wolfert’s method for making 7-day preserved lemons.
Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish, or 3 as a main course.
5-6 cups mixed color cauliflower florets (white, violet, gold and green), separated and cut into pieces if necessary
1-1/4 cup mixed olives, pitted (I used Kalamata, Castelvetrano, and Mount Athos)
10 large cloves garlic, unpeeled
4 wedges preserved lemon with pulp (about ½ preserved lemon)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Fresh parsley, finely chopped, for garnish
Set the oven to 450 degrees. Cover the bottom of a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper. Set aside.
In a large bowl, drizzle the cauliflower florets with olive oil and toss so that they are lightly coated. Arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet.
Add the olives, preserved lemon wedges and unpeeled garlic cloves to the bowl and coat with olive oil. Tuck them amongst the cauliflower pieces.
Roast the ingredients in the oven for 12 minutes, just until the undersides of the cauliflower pieces are slightly browned. Turn the florets and roast for another 5 to 7 minutes, until the cauliflower is lightly cooked all the way through. Remove the baking sheet from the oven.
Remove the garlic cloves and preserved lemon from the baking sheet and set aside. Put the cauliflower and olives in a large serving bowl.
Gently squeeze the garlic cloves from their husks, taking care to keep them whole, and add to the bowl. Remove the pulp from the preserved lemon wedges and finely chop the peel before adding it to the bowl. Add a little more olive oil, sea salt and black pepper to taste, and toss well so that all the seasonings are evenly distributed.
Sprinkle with chopped parsley before serving.