Cauliflower is one of those vegetables that people have long underestimated. Even Mark Twain couldn’t resist dissing it: “Cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education,” he once said. Twain was right about one thing: Cauliflower is a member of the cabbage family. But as for that college education — it’s more like a graduate degree in nutrition.
A cruciferous vegetable, cauliflower is loaded with vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, antioxidants and fiber. Dozens of studies link diets rich in cauliflower to lowered risks of cancer. Because cauliflower has such a subtle, low-key flavor, though, boring veggies-and-dip plates don’t really do it justice. Instead, it pairs beautifully with bolder spices, like turmeric, ginger and fennel seed. (See “5 Healing Spices.”) Read on to learn more about cauliflower’s strengths. Once you know how to make the most of them, you’ll never take cauliflower for granted again.
Quick and Easy
1. Steam. First trim off the thick leaves and (if you’re steaming the whole head) cut an “x” into the bottom of the core. Place the cauliflower into a steamer and cook until tender. For a pretty presentation, cut into wedges, place on a plate and serve with extra-virgin olive oil and lemon wedges. Or, toss with a jarred simmer sauce and season as desired.
2. Roast. For a quick side, roast coarsely chopped cauliflower (stems and all) with extra-virgin olive oil, salt and pepper. Place in the oven for 30 to 35 minutes at 400 degrees F. For the best, most caramelized flavor, allow the cauliflower to turn golden brown on the edges, but avoid burning.
3. Purée. Enjoy cauliflower as a more nutritious (and lower-glycemic-index) alternative to mashed potatoes. After steaming or roasting, just mash or purée cooked cauliflower and season like mashed potatoes, with butter, salt and pepper. A little grated sharp cheddar or Pecorino Romano cheese on top adds a salty, nutty bite.
4. Grill. Slice cauliflower crosswise into ½-inch slices and brush with extra-virgin
olive oil; sprinkle with a little salt and grill until tender. Top with fresh ground black pepper and chopped fresh rosemary.
5. Pickle. To make the brine, simmer 2 cups rice wine vinegar, ¼ cup honey, 1 cup water and 2 tablespoons kosher salt together with 1 tablespoon whole coriander seeds, five slices of fresh gingerroot, five crushed garlic cloves and a Thai chili until salt dissolves. Pour brine over 2 cups cauliflower florets, ¼ cup sliced red onion and 1 cup sliced red radishes; refrigerate overnight. Not a fan of pink? Substitute white onion and white daikon radish for the red veggies. Either way, your pickled cauliflower will keep two weeks.
- Cruciferous vegetables — such as cauliflower, kale, broccoli and cabbage — are important for cancer prevention because they provide powerful antioxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients, and they help detoxify the body. Eat two to five servings a week to leverage these benefits.
- Cauliflower’s anti-inflammatory properties come in part from omega-3 fatty acids (in the form of alpha-linolenic acids, or ALA); high levels of vitamin K, which is also good for strong bones and helping blood to clot; and glucosinolates, which the body converts into an anti-inflammatory compound called indole-3-carbinol, or I3C.
- Cauliflower is a fantastic source of vitamin C, a powerful antioxidant; 1 cup steamed provides about 90 percent of the recommended daily amount. It is also an excellent source of folate and fiber.
- To preserve cauliflower, don’t wash it until you’re going to use it.
- Cauliflower is great raw, and best paired with bold-flavored complements (hummus, chili-spiced yogurt, etc.). It’s also nice in slaws.
- The stems and core are edible, too. When preparing them for cooking, cut the so that they’re about the same size as the florets.
- When steaming cauliflower, add a tablespoon of lemon juice to the water to keep the cauliflower from discoloring.
Shopping and Storage Tips
- Look for a firm, compact center “curd,” preferably surrounded by thick green leaves.
- Avoid cauliflower that is spotted, dull in color, or has small flowers starting to appear.
- The size of the cauliflower doesn’t affect taste or texture, so buy according to how much you need.
- Store-bought, precut florets should be eaten within one to two days. Whole heads can be stored unwashed for up to five days in the refrigerator. To prevent excess moisture from forming, place cauliflower stem-side down in a paper bag or a reusable perforated storage bag. If you can’t use up all the cauliflower within five days, steam and freeze it — or pickle it. (See the “Quick and Easy” section for a quick refrigerator pickle recipe.)
Choose Your Hue
Classic, white cauliflower is the most common variety of this cruciferous vegetable. But cauliflower comes in a variety of colors with subtle flavor differences. Use them interchangeably to make your meals more nutritious and beautiful.
Purple. Purple cauliflower cooks a little faster than white and has a slightly milder flavor. Its color comes from anthocyanins, the same cancer-fighting phytonutrients found in beets, blueberries and raisins. It’s also a little higher in vision-helping vitamin A than white cauliflower.
Orange. Orange cauliflower tastes a little sweeter, milder and creamier than its white counterpart. But, it cooks much the same as white cauliflower. The biggest difference? Orange cauliflower has about 25 percent more beta-carotene.
Green. A cross between cauliflower and broccoli, it’s sometimes called broccoflower. And, when cooked it tastes a bit more like broccoli. Romanesco is a type of broccoflower that grows in a beautiful spiky variation. It can be prepared just like a regular cauliflower.
Roasted Cauliflower, Anchovies, Capers and Garlic
This side can be enjoyed on its own or tossed with pasta or gnocchi. If you don’t care for anchovies, substitute minced Kalamata olives. Just know that the anchovies dissolve in the sauce when cooked and don’t taste fishy. Because anchovies have plenty of salt, there is no need to add more to your roasting cauliflower.
Makes six servings
- 2 tbs. olive oil, divided
- 4 cups chopped cauliflower, with flower cut into florets and stems cut into 1-inch by 1-inch pieces
- 8 anchovy fillets, minced
- 3 cloves garlic, crushed into 1 tbs. olive oil
- 1 tbs. small capers
- Zest and juice of one lemon
- Freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Drizzle baking sheet with 1 tablespoon olive oil and toss the chopped cauliflower with it. Roast for 30 to 35 minutes, stirring two to three times, until softened and golden. When cauliflower is roasted, heat a small sauté pan with 1 tablespoon olive oil, and add the anchovies and garlic in olive oil. Sauté for about 15 seconds, stirring regularly. Add the capers, lemon zest and lemon juice, and black pepper, and remove from heat. Stir until mixed and pour over the cauliflower, tossing slightly to combine. Serve warm or at room temperature.
Creamy Carrot and Cauliflower Soup
This puréed soup is smooth, creamy and dairy free. If you want a white soup, substitute parsnips for the carrots. If you want to intensify the soup’s color, use orange cauliflower.
Makes four servings
- 1 tbs. unsalted butter
- 1 cup diced yellow onion
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 2 tbs. minced fresh gingerroot
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced
- 3 cups chopped cauliflower
- ½ cup raw cashew pieces
- 4 cups chicken stock
- ½ tsp. ground cardamom
- Salt and fresh ground pepper, to taste
- Crumbled goat cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds, if desired
Melt butter in a medium saucepan. Add onion, celery and ginger, and sauté until vegetables are softened, about five minutes. Add carrot, cauliflower and cashews, and sprinkle with a little salt to “sweat” the vegetables. Cover and cook, stirring every few minutes, for about 10 minutes. Add the chicken stock, cover and simmer until vegetables are very tender. Purée the soup with an immersion or regular blender. (If you’re using a regular blender, fill it only one-third or halfway, and cover lid with a kitchen towel to prevent the soup from bursting out.) Season with salt, pepper and cardamom. Sprinkle with goat cheese crumbles and toasted pumpkin seeds before serving.
This slaw can be made even more colorful by using purple or green cauliflower, and by substituting red apples for the green, or adding red cabbage into the mix. Sprinkle in some currants for more texture and flavor. Although a food processor with a grater attachment is helpful for preparing vegetables for this salad, you can use a hand grater or finely chop the vegetables by hand.
Makes six servings
- 4 cups shredded cauliflower, stems and core included
- ½ cup finely minced red onion
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and grated, (about 1½ cups)
- 1 Granny Smith apple, cored, quartered and grated
- Zest of one lemon
- Juice of one lemon, about ¼ cup
- 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
- ½ tsp. salt
- Freshly ground black pepper
Mix vegetables together in a bowl. Whisk the lemon zest and juice with the olive oil, and add salt and pepper. Toss with the veggies and chill before serving.
All of these recipes were created by Betsy Nelson — a.k.a. “That Food Girl” — a Minneapolis-based food stylist and recipe developer.
Karen Olson is a Minneapolis-based writer and a frequent contributor to Experience Life magazine.