A head of cauliflower is a good example of fractal structure - the composition of the whole is reproduced in miniature by each floret - and the Fibonacci sequence, in which every spiral of florets contains a number of florets that is the sum of the two florets before it.
My vague grasp of this aspect of the cauliflower I owe to my daughter, who starts gabbing about fractals and Fibonacci numbers whenever she spies a head of the vegetable on the kitchen counter.
Such are the curses of parenthood: There's always a young show-off in the room when, for Pete's sake, you're just trying to figure out what to make for dinner.
In addition to starring as an example in math class these days, cauliflower is overcoming its past on the dinner table. In the 1950s it was frozen in blocks by Clarence Birdseye, plopped into a saucepan and most often served beneath a gloppy blanket of white sauce or melted cheese.
There's less of that treatment these days now that it is nutritionally incorrect to eat so much fat. But on another front, cauliflower still suffers the indignity of being served raw in big chunks - with equally uncooked broccoli - on crudite platters as a vehicle for dip. (Listen up, people: Steam both.)
The bulk of U.S.-grown cauliflower is raised in the central coast area of California - around Monterey - joining fields of brussels sprouts, artichokes and strawberries that stretch to the sea and love the misty mornings. Most of the crop is the white variety, with its gorgeous, round, snowy and pebbly surface framed by light green leaves. But showing up, too, are more and more variants that are astonishing shades of yellow, orange or purple.
Lucky shoppers may also encounter the otherworldly Romanesco cauliflower, also called broccoflower, whose curds - yes, that is the technical word for the florets - appear as tiny, spiraling, lime-green castle turrets. It is the most obvious example of the Fibonacci sequence as it appears in cauliflower, by the way.
Romanesco shows up in stores and at markets in September and disappears by December. It is so breathtaking in appearance that it is tempting to cook it whole and serve it that way too. It seems a crime to take a knife to it before diners can be amazed by what nature has wrought. So steam it - whole if you can - and serve it to amaze dinner guests.
Cauliflower, a cruciferous vegetable, contains high amounts of Vitamin C, iron, folacin and potassium, and studies show that it reduces the risk of some cancers, most notably those attacking the prostate. This may be why 56 percent of the cauliflower consumed in the United States is eaten by people 45 years old and older, according to a 2006 report conducted by the Agricultural Issues Center at the University of California.
Data on cauliflower consumption in England has a more interesting bent: More than a third of it is eaten on Sundays there. Reason: It is a traditional accompaniment to the quintessentially British Sunday roast (beef, lamb or pork) and Yorkshire pudding. Anglophiles are offended that, increasingly, much of that Sunday cauliflower is imported from other countries.
The versatility of the white variety - beautiful, too, but less startling - makes them worth disfiguring by:
Mashing: Anyone who has tried a low-carb diet has discovered that mashed cauliflower has the fluffy, satisfying mouth feel of mashed potatoes without the high glycemic index. Separate the florets, steam or simmer them until very tender, drain well and mash them with or without butter or extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper.
Roasting: Toss the curds with olive oil, place them on a baking sheet with a rim and roast in a 425-degree oven for about 1 hour, or until parts of each floret are golden brown. The browner and more caramelized they are, the sweeter. And the better the chance that a child or reluctant vegetable-eater will accept them.
Grating: Having decried chunks of raw cauliflower on crudite platters, I will now advocate its use uncooked in tiny pieces. Many chefs these days are turning the vegetable into what they are calling "couscous" or "snow." To do this on a hand grater, use the small holes. Or pulse florets in batches in a food processor until they are as small as you want. Some chefs briefly cook this grated cauliflower in a skillet with a small knob of butter for about 10 minutes, and then they treat it as couscous or rice, adding herbs, olive oil and whatever else they choose. But I am hooked on it uncooked and tossed with toasted almonds, dried cranberries, chopped chives and mint with a splash of lemon juice and olive oil.
No matter how you cook cauliflower, use your imagination when seasoning and adding other ingredients to it.
John-Paul Biasutto, chef of Summerfield's restaurant in Margaretville, N.Y., thinks of it as a bland vegetable that, like tofu, will take on whatever strong flavor it is paired with.
Biasutto should know. Every year Margaretville hosts a festival - complete with a youngster wearing a cauliflower costume made of chicken wire and stuffing - to commemorate the Catskill area's past as a major cauliflower-growing region. The heyday of the area's cauliflower industry was from 1900 to 1940, until agribusiness took it to California and elsewhere.
Biasutto has won many prizes for cooking at the festival, so I asked him if the cauliflower's link to fractals and Fibonacci numbers ever comes up in Margaretville.
He had absolutely no idea what I was talking about.
Warm Cauliflower Chutney
Makes about 2 cups
1 large head cauliflower
1/2 red pepper
1/2 green pepper
1 red onion
1/4 cup white vinegar
2 tablespoons grated ginger
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
11/2 cups sugar
1. Core, trim and dice the cauliflower, red and green peppers and red onion.
2. In a microwave-safe bowl, combine the vegetables with the vinegar, gingers, turmeric, cloves and sugar.
3. Microwave on high until the cauliflower is tender-soft (for most units, about 15 minutes). Stir; serve warm, not hot.
Note: Microwaving preserves the colors of the ingredients. Stovetop cooking is not recommended.
Per serving (based on 8): 157 calories, 1 gram protein, 40 grams carbohydrates, 38 grams sugar, trace fat, no cholesterol, 9 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
Cauliflower Soup With Apples and Curry
Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon curry powder
1 medium onion, diced
2 apples, cored and grated
1 head cauliflower, in florets
Bouquet garni of parsley, thyme and bay tied in celery (two 6-inch lengths)
Freshly grated nutmeg
6 cups chicken stock
1/3 cup crème fraiche
2 to 4 tablespoons chopped parsley or chervil
Salt and fresh black pepper
1. In a large pot, heat the butter until it begins to brown.
2. Add the curry, onion and a little salt. Cook 1 minute.
3. Add the grated apples, cauliflower, the bouquet garni, nutmeg and a little more salt. Simmer 10 to 15 minutes.
4. Add the stock. Return to a boil and let simmer for 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bouquet garni.
5. Puree the soup in batches in a blender and return the soup to the pot; heat and keep warm (or puree with a hand blender in the pot).
6. If the soup is too thick, add more stock. Ladle the soup into bowls and serve with a dollop of crème fraiche and a sprinkling of chopped chervil.
and Robert Reynolds
Per serving: 134 calories, 2 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 7 grams sugar, 9 grams fat, 27 milligrams cholesterol, 1,016 milligrams sodium, 3 grams dietary fiber.
Cauliflower and Zucchini Pancakes
Makes about 15 pancakes, 5 to 6 servings
4 cups cauliflower florets, cooked until soft
2 large eggs
½ cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
½ teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 medium zucchini, finely shredded
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons oil
1. In a food processor, puree the cooked cauliflower with the egg, flour, baking powder, cayenne, oregano, salt and pepper. Stir in the zucchini with a wooden spoon.
2. In a large skillet, heat the butter and oil. Ladle batter into the pan in 4-tablespoon batches. Cook the pancakes for about 2 minutes on each side, turning when bubbles on the surface burst or when bottom is lightly browned. Use more butter and oil as needed. Serve at once.
Madhur Jaffrey's Scrambled Eggs With Potatoes and Cauliflower
Makes 4 to 6 servings
4 tablespoons vegetable oil
½ teaspoon cumin seeds
1/2 medium onion, minced
1 potato, peeled and diced
2 cups small cauliflower florets (up to 1/2 inch)
Minced fresh hot green chile, to taste, optional
1 teaspoon peeled, finely grated fresh ginger
Salt and fresh black pepper
8 large eggs, lightly beaten
1. In a large nonstick frying pan on medium heat, heat 3 tablespoons of the oil. When hot, add the cumin seeds and let sizzle for a few seconds. Stir-fry the onion until limp.
2. Add and stir-fry the potato until lightly browned.
3. Stir in the cauliflower, chile and ginger; cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons water, simmer, cover, turn heat to low and cook until tender, about 10 minutes. Stir often, replacing lid each time. Remove lid, turn off heat and dust with salt and pepper. (May be made ahead to this point.)
4. At serving time, dust the eggs with a little salt and pepper. Over medium-high heat, stir the vegetables until they are heated through. Push them to the edges of the pan. Add and heat the remaining tablespoon of oil.
5. Add the eggs, stirring gently to get the scrambled consistency you like. Near the end, mix in the vegetables.