Bring out the hidden beauty

Times Staff Writer

Cauliflower is nobody's idea of glamorous. It looks like overeducated broccoli, pallid and shaggy-headed as any library-dwelling grad student. But for all of its apparent lack of sex appeal, when you treat cauliflower with respect, it is capable of standing on equal terms with even the most rarefied of foods.

The best example of this is probably the cauliflower and caviar combination that seems to be all the rage this decade. Can you imagine two ingredients that would seem to have less to say to each other? One is pricey, the other plain. One is the essence of the ocean, the other as down-on-the-farm as anything possibly can be.

But combine the two -- in, say, cauliflower custard with a caviar garnish -- and the result is breathtaking, a seamless bridge from rich earthiness to briny sparkle.

Cauliflower is also one of the best partners for the white truffle. The origin of this combination is a little more obvious -- cook cauliflower a little too long and you'll find, mingled with that stewed cabbage stink, a haunting but definite trace of the perfume of fresh white truffles (both smells are based on related sulfurous compounds).

Clearly, there is a lot more to the cauliflower than you might expect. Indeed, the longer you spend with it, the more aspects you discover. After a while, the question becomes: What can't cauliflower do? The answer is: Not much. It all depends on how you cook it.

Blanch cauliflower briefly in boiling water and it is almost sweet. Try the quick pickle, for example, and you'll find it hard to believe that there's no sugar in the mix. The trick is in timing the process so the vegetable cooks long enough to soften that gritty raw texture but not so long that it loses its crispness and sweetness.

This will take about five minutes. If you pay close attention, you'll see the tiny buds of the floret swell and seem to soften out of focus. But the best method for timing this is simply to fish a piece out and take a bite. The texture should be slightly softened but still retain a definite crunch.

These pickles are great to keep in your refrigerator. They'll last for weeks and are perfect for setting out in a bowl to serve with drinks. They can also take the place of a salad as a simple side dish. Think about a roast pork sandwich with lots of good mustard and some crisp, sweet-tart cauliflower pickles on the side.

Cook it a little longer and cauliflower's mustardy flavors begin to come to the fore. Braise it, for example, and the vegetable will be forceful enough to take on every big flavor you can think of. The texture of cauliflower cooked this way will be softer, but it should by no means be falling apart.

As with other vegetable braises, the trick is to cook the cauliflower covered over medium heat until it is nearly done, then remove the lid and turn the heat up to high. This will reduce the cooking liquid to a flavorful glaze.

To get that really rich, deep cauliflower flavor for the custard, you need to cook the vegetable thoroughly. The timing is important. The longer you cook it, the more powerful the mustardy, sulfury flavors will be. You want them to be pronounced enough that they will cut through the cream, cheese and eggs, but not so strong that they become obnoxious. When the cauliflower is done, it should be just soft enough that you can crush a floret between your fingers.

You can boil cauliflower for this recipe, but steaming is better. With boiling, the cauliflower is muted. The vegetable exchanges liquid with the cooking water, losing flavor and picking up only a little saltiness in exchange (you do salt your cooking water, don't you?). Steaming keeps more of the taste intact because the vegetable never touches the liquid and therefore there is no exchange.

To get an even deeper cauliflower flavor, you can combine cooking methods, as with the cauliflower custard. The pudding emphasizes the creamy, earthy aspect of the vegetable. The topping is more aggressive, with a well-browned richness and a good hit of garlic.

Of course, you could always top the custard with a big dollop of caviar. Or shave white truffles over it if you're feeling especially extravagant. Go ahead, cauliflower can adapt.

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Say hello to the new baby

As unprepossessing as the adult might be, is there any vegetable cuter than a baby cauliflower? Only a couple of inches in diameter, it's so small that its tiny head frequently comes fully wrapped in a pale green leaf. A baby cauliflower looks like an Anne Geddes photo come to life.

A rarity not long ago, today baby cauliflower can be found at many farmers markets as well as at some mainstream groceries.

But there's nothing particularly infantile about this miniature variety. The vegetables are fully mature, taste the same as regular cauliflower and are cooked the same way. Obviously, you'll want to serve them so as to show off their darling appearance. Maybe steam their little heads and serve them with hollandaise?

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Cauliflower custard

Total time: 1 hour, 15 minutes

Servings: 6

Note: This custard is a great standard recipe that can be tweaked to fit any number of dishes. It sets up firm enough that it can even be unmolded.

14 ounces (about 4 cups)

cauliflower florets

1 1/4cups heavy cream

4 eggs

1 teaspoon salt

Freshly grated nutmeg

1/2clove garlic

2 tablespoons butter, divided

1/2cup fresh baguette crumbs, crusts trimmed

1. Heat the oven to 300 degrees. Steam the cauliflower over high heat until quite tender, 7 to 10 minutes. When it's done, you should be able to crush a floret between your fingers. Undercooking the cauliflower will make the custard grainy. Remove the cauliflower from the heat and let it cool for 10 minutes. Reserve 4 florets for garnish.

2. Transfer the cauliflower to a food processor or blender and pulse several times to grind. Add the heavy cream and puree until fairly smooth but with tiny pieces of cauliflower still evident. Pulse in the eggs, salt and nutmeg.

3. Strain the mixture into a large measuring cup. Stir the puree with

a rubber spatula to help it flow through the strainer, but do not press it; this will also make the custard grainy. Divide the strained puree evenly among 6 half-cup ovenproof ramekins. Discard the cauliflower remaining in the strainer.

4. Arrange the ramekins in a large roasting pan and place the roasting pan in the oven. Pour boiling water into the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Bake in the water bath until the center of the custard just barely jiggles when the pan is shaken, 35 to 40 minutes.

5. While the custard is baking, prepare the topping. Mince the garlic. Heat a small saute pan and melt 1 tablespoon butter. Add the garlic and bread crumbs. Cook over low heat until the crumbs turn golden brown. Remove from the heat and set aside. Slice each reserved cauliflower floret into 3 pieces from top to bottom to form a floret profile. In a separate pan, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter. Cook the florets until golden brown, then remove and drain on paper towels. Set aside.

6. When the custards are cooked, remove them from the water bath and let them stand at room temperature for 10 minutes to set. Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture evenly over the 6 ramekins and place 2 floret slices on each ramekin. Serve immediately.

Each serving: 284 calories; 7 grams protein; 7 grams carbohydrates; 2 grams fiber; 26 grams fat; 15 grams saturated fat; 220 mg. cholesterol; 488 mg. sodium.

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Quick cauliflower pickles

Total time: 50 minutes plus 2 hours chilling time

Servings: 12

1/4cup olive oil

1 onion, coarsely chopped

2 cloves garlic, smashed

1 1/4pounds (about 6 cups) cauliflower florets

2/3cup white wine

2/3cup white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

1 bay leaf

4-6 sprigs fresh thyme

1/2teaspoon whole black peppercorns

1/4teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 cup pitted green olives

Zest of 1/2 lemon

1. Heat the olive oil and onion over low heat in a large saucepan or straight-sided saute pan. Cook until the onion becomes translucent, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic cloves and cook until they begin to soften, about 4 to 5 minutes.

2. Add the cauliflower, white wine, white wine vinegar, salt, bay leaf, thyme, whole peppercorns and red pepper flakes. Cook until the cauliflower is tender but crisp, about 5 minutes.

3. With a slotted spoon, remove the cauliflower to a bowl and set aside. Add the green olives and lemon zest to the pan, increase the heat to high and reduce the liquid to a thick syrup, about 5 to 8 minutes.

4. Remove the bay leaf and pour the syrup over the florets. Cover tightly and refrigerate at least a couple of hours before serving. The cauliflower will keep for several weeks if refrigerated.

Each serving: 84 calories; 1 gram protein; 5 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram fiber; 6 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 0 cholesterol; 369 mg. sodium.

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Garlicky braised cauliflower with capers

Total time: 40 minutes

Servings: 4 to 6

Note: This can be served as a side dish to a roast, a light main course or even over pasta.

3 tablespoons olive oil

4 salted anchovies, rinsed and minced

3 cloves garlic, minced

1/4teaspoon dried red pepper flakes

1 1/4pounds (about 6 cups) cauliflower florets

3 tablespoons capers

1/4cup chopped parsley

Salt

1. Combine the olive oil and anchovies in a skillet and warm over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring, until the anchovies begin to melt into the oil, about 1 minute. Add the garlic and red pepper flakes and keep cooking until the garlic softens, another 3 minutes.

2. Add the cauliflower florets and one-half cup of water. Cover tightly and cook on medium-low until the florets become slightly tender -- soft enough to be pierced with a knife, but not so soft that they can be crushed, about 7 minutes.

3. Remove the lid and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring, until the water evaporates, leaving behind a thin layer of syrup in the bottom of the pan, about 5 minutes. Add the capers and parsley and cook briefly. Season to taste with salt and serve warm.

Each of 6 servings: 93 calories; 3 grams protein; 6 grams carbohydrates; 3 grams fiber; 7 grams fat; 1 gram saturated fat; 2 mg. cholesterol; 255 mg. sodium.

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Russ Parsons can be reached at russ.parsons@latimes.com.

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