Cauliflower offers entertainment on winter weeknights

The Baltimore Sun

You know it is the dead of winter when your weeknight entertainment is playing with cauliflower. That is how I recently spent a few nights.

One evening, I pressed a crown of blue cheese and bread crumbs onto a head of roasted cauliflower. Another night, my diversion consisted of slicing the vegetable into pieces, cooking them with curry and yogurt, then tossing on cilantro and lime juice.

Finally, for kicks, I took a cauliflower apart, cooked it and put it back together upside down. Then, in a real showstopping move, I flipped it over so it appeared on the table whole and right side up.

These endeavors entertained me -- but as should be apparent by now, I am easily amused, especially during these dark months.

Cauliflower thrives in cool weather. One trick to growing cauliflower, the local farmers say, is to plant the crop so that it has plenty of time to enjoy autumnal weather, yet comes to fruition before the first killing frost. In Maryland, at this time of year, when locally grown cauliflower has disappeared from farmers' markets, you scoop up the California-grown heads that appear in grocery stores.

Mostly, cauliflower is an albino vegetable, snowy white. There is a rebel variety that is purple. Like children with multiple piercings, the purple cauliflower may go for a striking appearance, but it has the same homegrown goodness as the conventional-looking types.

Cauliflower takes well to spices. In a previous winter, I discovered the joy of sprinkling cinnamon on cauliflower florets cooked with slices of Italian sausage. The English, a people adept at dealing with dark seasons, taught me the trick of spreading coriander seeds and an oily garlic paste over cauliflower florets, then roasting them in a 400-degree oven.

This winter, my yen for cauliflower experiments led me to the cheesy-crown ploy.

I found the recipe in Cheese, Glorious Cheese!, a new cookbook by Paula Lambert, an artisanal cheese maker who founded the Mozzarella Cheese Co. in Dallas some 25 years ago.

I rubbed a head of cauliflower with olive oil, then cooked it for half an hour in a 400-degree oven. Then, just when it started to brown, I pulled the head out of the oven and covered it with a mixture of bread crumbs, fresh tarragon and blue cheese. Next, the "crowned" cauliflower went back in the oven for another 10 minutes of so.

It emerged from the oven looking gorgeous, a rich brown. The flavor, a mixture of cheese and cauliflower, was compelling. But the texture of the dish was a bit dry. I think I might have overcooked it.

A couple of nights later, I was again enjoying the company of cauliflower. This time, I sliced it into florets. Then, as they sizzled in a skillet, they were joined by a variety of ingredients that, like tired skiers heading for a hot tub, jumped right in.

First came the onions, then curry powder and pepper flakes. Next in was the yogurt. When the cauliflower was cooling down, in jumped the cilantro and lime juice. This melange of ingredients reminded me of the axiom that it is always more fun when you have a crowd.

Finally, for kicks, there was a session of cauliflower calisthenics.

Leading me through these maneuvers was the trio of Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. These women formed a cooking school in 1951 in Paris and combined their culinary wisdom in the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It first was published in 1961; I have the 40th-anniversary edition.

This book explained how to flip a cauliflower. You flip a cauliflower because it makes an attractive presentation, the authors said. I would add that it also livens up a dreary evening.

Following instructions from Child and her friends, I first found a bowl that was slightly smaller in width and depth than the dimensions of the head of cauliflower. I set the bowl in a pan of simmering water to warm it. I cut the cauliflower into florets, and cooked them in a pot of boiling water uncovered for 9 to 12 minutes, until they were tender at the edges but slightly crunchy in the core.

Then I reconstructed the head. Starting with the longest floret, I placed it head down in the center of the warmed bowl. I added more florets, heads down, stems converging at the center of bowl. I kept going until the bowl was filled.

Then I took a warm serving dish and placed it upside down over the filled bowl.

Finally I held my breath as I flipped, reversing the bowl and dish. For a few minutes I had cauliflower standing at attention.

It was quite a thrill, at least for February.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

Roasted Cauliflower With a Roquefort Crust

Serves 8

1 head cauliflower

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly grated black pepper

one 6-inch piece of a baguette

3/4 cup (4 ounces) crumbled Roquefort

1/2 teaspoon fresh tarragon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Place cauliflower in a small baking pan. Drizzle olive oil over the cauliflower, sprinkle with salt and pepper and transfer to oven. Roast for about 30 minutes, until cauliflower begins to brown.

Meanwhile cut the baguette into 1/2 -inch slices, then slice into quarters. Transfer the bread to a food processor fitted with a steel blade and process to make finely chopped fresh bread crumbs. Combine the bread crumbs, Roquefort and tarragon in a small bowl, mixing with a fork or your fingers until the texture is uniform.

When the cauliflower begins to brown, remove the pan from the oven and, using your hands, pat the cheese-seasoned bread crumbs onto it to encase it. Don't worry if some of the crumbles fall onto the pan -- they will toast. Return the cauliflower to the oven and continue roasting for 5 to 10 minutes longer, until the bread crumbs on the cauliflower have browned. Remove the cauliflower from the oven and transfer to a serving dish. To serve, use a sharp chef's knife to slice the cauliflower into wedges, as if cutting a cake. Sprinkle any bread crumbs that slide off over the cauliflower. Serve warm or at room temperature.

From "Cheese, Glorious Cheese!" by Paula Lambert

Per serving: 138 calories, 5 grams protein, 9 grams fat, 3 grams saturated fat, 11 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 13 milligrams cholesterol, 404 milligrams sodium

Curried Skillet Cauliflower With Cilantro

Serves 6

1 head cauliflower (2 pounds)

1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 onion, thinly sliced

1 teaspoon curry powder

1/8 teaspoon red-pepper flakes

1/4 cup plain, whole-milk yogurt

1/4 cup water

1/4 cup minced fresh cilantro

1 tablespoon fresh lime juice (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

Cut the cauliflower into 1-inch florets. Heat the oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the cauliflower and cook until it just begins to soften, about 3 minutes. Stir in the onion and continue to cook until the florets begin to brown and the onion begins to soften, about 5 minutes.

Stir in the curry powder and pepper flakes. Cook until the spices become fragrant, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and stir in yogurt and water. Cover and cook until the flavors blend and the cauliflower is completely tender, about 6 minutes. Off the heat, stir in the cilantro and lime juice (if using) and season with salt and pepper to taste.

From "The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook"

Per serving: 57 calories, 2 grams protein, 4 grams fat, 1 gram saturated fat, 5 grams carbohydrate, 2 grams fiber, 1 milligram cholesterol, 23 milligrams sodium

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