Cauliflower in the vegan spotlight

JACKFRUIT. Kale chips. Aquafaba. I've tipped you to these trends as they happened. Today I'm here to tout a wonderful trend - an amazing plant called cauliflower.

OK, hear me out: I know, there's nobody who hasn't had cauliflower, usually as a fine supporting player paired with potatoes or maybe with broccoli. But cauliflower is so versatile, it can do almost anything.

Even a steak. Lately, a phrase historically associated with wishful-thinking hippies is showing up on upscale dining menus with tongue firmly removed from cheek. And that's just one way cauliflower is moving meat out of the spotlight.

At Fork, chef John Patterson said the restaurant's cauliflower steak entrée, the main vegan offering for this contemporary fine-dining venue, started as an off-menu alternative - you had to know about it and ask for it. But it got enough traction that Patterson's predecessor, Eli Kulp, added it to the menu.

Though he didn't create the dish, Patterson is a fan: "It's a great way to utilize cauliflower," he said. "We poach it with thyme, crushed garlic, lemon zest, olive oil, and salt, then sear it so the outside gets caramelized. It's served with a puree of macrons almonds with some more lemon zest, and dressed with shaved raw vegetables."

The topping veggies vary according to season, but right now include Romanesco, the light-green cauliflower variant with the conical points and Fibonacci spirals. Patterson is a big Romanesco fan and agreed that using one form of cauliflower to top another speaks to the versatility of this underheralded cruciferous vegetable.

Steak isn't the only area where cauliflower is encroaching on meat territory.

The Wild Burrito in South Philly has added cauliflower "wings" to its arsenal of creative vegan finger foods. They're coated in coconut milk and breaded in crumbled tortilla chips and served with Buffalo sauce and (vegan) blue cheese or ranch dressing.

* A fan fave at Taproom on 19th is the General Tso's cauliflower tempura with sweet, spicy sauce, green onion, and sesame seeds.

* Cauliflower shrimp is also apparently a thing. Lenka Zivkovic, chef at The Plough and the Stars, made a batch for one of her special vegan dinners at the restaurant.

She told me cauliflower makes a good blank canvas (it is, after all, the color of canvas) to absorb other flavors. She achieves a shrimp effect by cooking it in brine with Old Bay seasoning and crumbled Nori sheets. She also adds Old Bay to the breading flour.

It seems like wherever you look, someone's incorporating cauliflower into creative menu items.

Front Street Cafe is becoming known for its Buffalo cauliflower with cucumber-dill dressing, and Bar Bombon features Buffalo cauliflower tacos. Meanwhile, Revolution Taco offers fried curried cauliflower with guacamole, potato sticks, sesame seeds, and cilantro, and West Philly's Clarkville uses it as the basis of a sandwich, the "Veggie Bandit," which is fried cauliflower, pickled beet, kale, white bean puree, and lemon tahini in a bread pocket.

Cauliflower's great pickled. It anchors soups, stews, and the veggie tray, where it's a crunchy vehicle for sauces and dips. It's low in fat, high in antioxidants, and an excellent source of Vitamin C, potassium, and fiber. So why aren't we all cuckoo for cauliflower?

Is it the format? Let's face it: A head of cauliflower is unwieldy and heavy. It can't be stacked in the fridge. When you go to cut it, you find that its dual lineage ("cauli"+"flower" = a cabbage that flowers) makes it hard to get uniform pieces. The straight stalk and bulbous florets don't match up, no matter what angle your knife blade takes.

Both times I've attempted cauliflower steak, I wound up with two good, solid cross-sections and about 500 bits in random sizes and shapes.

One solution is to go ahead and chop the whole thing into tiny, rice-size nuggets. Now you have cauliflower rice (or "raced cauliflower") that can be used in many ways. Lightly boiled, it can replace rice as a base. It can also be mixed in with rice as an extender, or used cooked or raw in soups, salads, stews, and what have you to boost a dish's nutrition profile.

Philly's vegan-friendly venues are inventively showcasing cauliflower, but home cooks should also feel free to get creative. Aiding in that endeavor are Rich Landau and Kate Jacoby, the king and queen of the Philly vegan scene.

When it opened, their flagship restaurant, Vedge, was the first place I had pickled cauliflower, and this duo has continued to find many fresh and different ways to make cauliflower pop.

One of these is the Cauliflower "65" dish at V Street, a riff on Chicken 65, a traditional spicy dish from India. The recipe is in the new cookbook V Street: 100 Globe-Hopping Plates on the Cutting Edge of Vegetable Cooking (William Morrow).

Try this or the other recipe included here, and you'll see the potential of this humble vegetable.

V-News You Can Use: Aspiring Philly chefs who've missed out on Fran Costigan's legendary NYC Vegan Baking Boot Camp can try a home version with her Essential Vegan Desserts Course via the Rouxbe Online Cooking School (vegandesserts.rouxbe.com).

And for vegans who seek deeper meaning, the annual Vegan Spirituality Retreat is in Gladwyne this Saturday (meetup.com/Philadelphia-Vegan-Spirituality-Group).

Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 15-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia. VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.