It's new, it's now, it's cauliflower
Even the side-dish section of the menu, for years a rote addendum of asparagus, haricots verts, and creamed spinach, is part of a trending phenomenon. The proof: maple-glazed Brussels sprouts with applewood bacon.
If current restaurant menus are any indication, cauliflower may well be the new Brussels sprouts.
And while I adore Brussels sprouts, I find cauliflower much more visibly alluring, with its bold globes of cream-white curds and nests of vibrant greenery.
At his recently opened G sandwich emporium in D.C., chef Mike Isabella features a sandwich that has earned its own buzz. Isabella stuffs a sesame hoagie roll with al dente pieces of roasted cauliflower, charred scallions, fresh herbs, shishito peppers, and pickled shallots and dresses it with lemon paprika vinaigrette and house-made romesco sauce.
Roasting cauliflower is a preferred method among food pros, for good reason. It rids the vegetable of much of its water, concentrates its flavor, and adds the extra dimension of caramelization. Christophe Poteaux at Bastille in Old Town Alexandria, Va., tosses oven-roasted florets with capers, dates, olives, piquillo peppers, and fresh oregano.
In D.C., Aaron McCloud of Cedar Restaurant and Bart Vandaele of B Too make versions of risotto, grating cauliflower into rice-size pieces and cooking them as you would the Italian rice classic. The dish, finished with butter, cheese, and cream, takes on the texture of starchy arborio rice slowly cooked with wine and broth in the traditional method - minus the rice's carbs.
Inspired by those chefs, I embarked on my own cauliflower experimentation, soon malodorously evident throughout the house.
"A lot of people associate cauliflower with a nasty thing that smells," says chef McCloud, "and so it is an underutilized vegetable. For me, either you go all the way and cook it for a long time, or cook it a little so it maintains a nice crispiness. Otherwise, you lose the integrity of the vegetable."
I started off making the risotto, adjusting ingredients and incorporating parts of McCloud's and Vandaele's methods, such as using the Manchego cheese recommended by the former and folding in unsweetened whipped cream at the end per the latter.
I can't say that if my eyes were closed I would mistake the dish for the real thing, but the playful riff is satisfying in its own right.
I devised an easy way to oven-roast florets and get a nice, even color on them by finishing them under the broiler. The browned pieces, mixed with garlic, a pinch of nutmeg, heavy cream, and Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, baked into a bubbly brown gratin. Aside from not watering down the cream, roasting the cauliflower made the dish more intense and therefore interesting. I could have eaten it as a main course with a lightly dressed salad.
For another side dish, I combined roasted florets with brown butter, cured black olives, lemon zest, and golden raisins, a riff on the Bibiana preparation. That would also have made a perfect relish topping for, say, grilled swordfish.
My last cauliflower idea was improvised. When friends stopped by unannounced one evening for cocktails, I cobbled together a nibble board of trapezoids of random leftover cheeses; slices from a, shall we say, mature piece of chorizo; and raw cauliflower florets with an anchovy-rich Caesar salad dressing dip. That went over well: All of the cauliflower was eaten, rather than returned to the refrigerator in zip-top bags for reinvention later on.
Anchovy has long been a favored foil for cauliflower in Italian and French cooking. At Bibiana, Stefanelli honors the tradition by roasting cauliflower with garlic and anchovies (for saltiness), then sauteing it with tubular paccheri pasta and finishing with crushed red pepper flakes (background heat), toasted pine nuts (nuttiness), raisins rehydrated in white wine (sweetness and acid), pecorino Romano (richness), and parsley.
"I made this dish several years ago, and guests keep asking me for it. When it comes into season in the beginning of the summer and in the fall, I always have to put it back on the menu," says the chef. "It's getting to be that time of year again."
Roasted Cauliflower With Pistachios, Olives, and Raisins
Makes 6 servings
1 large head (2 pounds) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), broken into 11/2-inch florets
3 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dry vermouth
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup shelled, roasted, unsalted pistachios
1/3 cup cured pitted black olives, coarsely chopped
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1. Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
2. Coat the cauliflower florets with the oil and salt, then spread them on the baking sheet with any flat edges down. Bake on the lower rack for 20 minutes.
3. Preheat the broiler, then transfer the baking sheet to the top rack and broil for 10 minutes. The florets should be browned and tender.
4. Meanwhile, place the raisins in a small bowl. Warm the vermouth in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, then pour it over the raisins to plump them.
5. Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter stops foaming and its solids start to brown, turning the butter golden in color, stir in the pistachios, olives, crushed red pepper flakes, and lemon zest and juice. Stir the plumped raisins and any remaining vermouth into the mix. Remove from the heat.
6. Transfer the broiled cauliflower to the saute pan, stirring to coat and incorporate. Serve immediately.
Crisped Cauliflower With Lemon Tahini Sauce
Makes 4 servings
For the sauce:
1 cup tahini
1/2 cup fresh lemon juice
1/2 cup water
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 teaspoons kosher salt
Dash hot sauce, such as Tabasco
For the cauliflower:
4 cups canola oil, for frying
1/2 head cauliflower, cut into 11/2-inch florets (4 cups)
Leaves from half a small bunch mint, minced
1. For the sauce: Combine the tahini, lemon juice, water, garlic, salt, and hot sauce in a food processor or blender; puree until smooth.
2. For the cauliflower: Line a baking sheet with paper towels, then place a wire cooling rack over it.
3. Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Working in batches as needed, carefully add the florets and fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until golden brown.
4. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the florets to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Season them with salt while still hot.
5. Transfer to a serving bowl; garnish with the mint. Serve with tahini sauce on the side.
Makes 6 servings
1 head (2 pounds) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), cored and halved
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup dry white wine
1 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth, warmed
1/4 teaspoon fresh black pepper
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks, then brought to room temperature
1. Use the large-hole side of a box grater to grate each cauliflower half into rice-size pieces, stopping once you get to the stalk. The yield should be about 4 cups. (Cut the stalks into 1/2-inch pieces and reserve for another use, such as a puree or soup.)
2. Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes, until softened but not browned, stirring constantly. Add the cauliflower and salt; cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the white wine and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the wine has evaporated. Add the broth in three equal additions, stirring for about 3 minutes, until each addition has been absorbed. Add the pepper, nutmeg, butter and cheese, stirring until incorporated, then stir in the cream.
3. Serve immediately.
Note: When you grate cauliflower down to its core, you create rice-size pieces perfect for mimicking a classic risotto.
-Inspired by the cauliflower risotto on the menus of D.C. chefs Bart Vandaele, B Too restaurant; Aaron McCloud, Cedar; adapted by David Hagedorn.
David Hagedorn is coauthor of My Irish Table: Recipes From the Homeland (Ten Speed Press)