Cauliflower is not a steak. There is nothing steaklike about cauliflower. And while we’re at it, you know those cauliflower-based pizza crusts that they say don’t taste like cauliflower? They taste like cauliflower.
That said, I love cauliflower, except in its steak and pizza applications.
One friend of mine calls cauliflower the tofu of vegetables, because it soaks up and takes on the flavor of anything it is with. And that is true when it is served with a cheesy or spicy sauce. But when it is served by itself, unadorned, it has a mildly nutty flavor all its own.
To sample the many different aspects of cauliflower, I made it four ways. One was in a highly flavorful chilled salad, one was a traditional Indian presentation and one was in an amazing savory pie.
All three of those took some time and effort to make, with terrific results. But the fourth way could not have been simpler; it is the method that, to me, allows the pure, warm flavor of cauliflower to come through.
I roasted it. All I needed was a little olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, a dash of pepper and an oven.
The result was basic, elemental cauliflower, cauliflower at its most essential. It was perfection, and you can’t improve on perfection.
But I tried. And if anything can be more perfect than perfect, it is a savory Cauliflower Cheese Pie with grated potato crust. This dish is absolutely stellar.
The recipe comes from the “Moosewood Cookbook,” which is sort of the bible for vegetarians. As in, “In the beginning, there was the ‘Moosewood Cookbook.’”
I have made many dishes from this book over the years, but the Cauliflower Cheese Pie may be my new favorite.
The crust is basically a potato pancake baked in a pie pan: grated potatoes, grated onions and an egg white. Once that is essentially parbaked, you add a layer of shredded cheddar cheese (I used sharp cheese, which I would recommend), then a layer of thyme-scented, sautéed cauliflower and onions, and then another layer of shredded cheese.
Pour in a simple custard of eggs and a little milk, bake, and you end up with a dish that will make even the most fervent carnivore say, “maybe these Moosewood people are on to something.”
The Indian dish that I made was very nearly as great as the pie. It was a gobi aloo, although you will more often find it called an aloo gobi. Either way, it is a traditional dish that combines cauliflower (gobi) with potatoes (aloo).
This version was originally meant to be served for special occasions such as banquets, but it is surprisingly easier and much quicker to make than most other Indian dishes.
The cauliflower and potatoes are pan-fried in oil, which is then flavored with onions and ginger. Grated tomatoes are added, along with cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander, cumin and salt. It is all cooked together for a few minutes, and then you add garam masala at the end.
How good is it? I brought it out to my colleagues with all the other dishes, including the pie and the roasted cauliflower, and it was the first to go.
Finally, I made a wonderful marinated chickpea and cauliflower salad. This dish benefits from extended marination — at least four hours and up to three days. I marinated mine overnight. That was enough to smooth the flavors together, and yet still have a fresh, bright taste.
The brightness comes from sherry vinegar, which always makes whatever you use it in taste better. The vinegar is mixed with an extraordinary amount of olive oil (but it’s just used in the marinade; you’ll end up eating little of it), garlic, sugar, rosemary, thinly sliced lemon and smoked paprika.
And then comes the secret, a pinch of saffron. You can only taste it if you know it is there, but its heady aroma adds a perfect note to the garlic, the paprika, the chickpeas and of course the cauliflower.
The cauliflower soaks up the flavor like tofu.
Yield: 4 servings
1 pound cauliflower, about 1 medium-large head, trimmed and cut into 1/4-inch-thick slices
1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarsely ground black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place cauliflower in a large mixing bowl. Pour on just enough olive oil to coat. Season generously with salt and pepper and toss gently until evenly coated.
2. Lay cauliflower pieces out on a baking sheet. Drizzle any remaining oil from the bowl on top. Bake, turning once, until caramelized on edges and tender, 25 to 30 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature, as a side dish. You can also sprinkle it with a very good aged vinegar. Or, cut florets into smaller pieces and add to salads.
Per serving: 60 calories; 4 g fat; 1 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 2 g protein; 6 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 2 g fiber; 514 mg sodium; 28 mg calcium
Adapted from The New York Times
CAULIFLOWER CHEESE PIE
Yield: 4 to 5 servings
For the crust
2 cups (packed) grated raw potato
1/4 cup grated onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 egg white, lightly beaten
1 tablespoon oil
For the filling
1 tablespoon olive oil or butter
1 cup chopped onion
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
Black pepper, to taste
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/4 teaspoon dried thyme
1 medium cauliflower, cut into florets
1 cup (packed) grated cheddar
1/4 cup milk
1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
2. For the crust: Combine grated potato, onion, salt and egg white in a small bowl, and mix well. Transfer to a pie pan and pat into place with lightly floured fingers, building up the sides into a handsome edge.
3. Bake for 30 minutes, then brush crust with 1 tablespoon of oil (or less) and bake it 10 more minutes. Remove from oven and lower temperature to 375 degrees.
4. For the filling: Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil or butter in a large skillet. Add onion, garlic, salt, pepper, basil and thyme, and sauté over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add cauliflower, stir and cover. Cook until tender, stirring occasionally, about 8 to 10 minutes.
5. Spread half the cheese onto the baked crust. Spoon the sautéed vegetables on top, then sprinkle on the remaining cheese. Beat the eggs and milk together and pour over the top. Dust lightly with paprika.
6. Bake 35 to 40 minutes, or until set. Serve hot or warm.
Per serving (based on 5): 271 calories; 16 g fat; 6 g saturated fat; 97 mg cholesterol; 13 g protein; 22 g carbohydrate; 5 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 698 mg sodium; 235 mg calcium
Recipe from “Moosewood Cookbook,” 40th Anniversary Edition, by Mollie Katzen
CAULIFLOWER WITH POTATOES (GOBI ALOO)
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
1 large cauliflower
2 to 3 medium potatoes, peeled
8 tablespoons vegetable oil
3 medium-sized onions, finely chopped
2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into very fine slices and then into very fine slivers
2 medium tomatoes, grated or finely chopped
1/4 to 1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 1/2 teaspoons ground coriander
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 to 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon garam masala
1. Break the cauliflower into medium-sized florets. Cut the potatoes lengthwise into halves and then cut each have lengthwise into roughly 3 pieces to get chunky fries.
2. Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over medium heat. When oil starts to shimmer, add the potatoes and fry until they are medium-brown and just barely cooked through. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Put the florets in the same oil and fry until just barely cooked through. Remove with slotted spoon and drain on paper towels. Remove all but 3 tablespoons of the oil from the wok or pan.
3. Add the onions and stir until they are light brown. Add the ginger and continue to stir and fry until the onions are medium-brown. Add the tomatoes and keep frying until they turn soft and darker, and the oil seems to separate from the sauce. Add the cayenne pepper, turmeric, coriander, cumin and salt. Stir and fry for 1 minute.
4. Return the potatoes and florets to the pan. Stir to mix gently. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of water over the vegetables. Cover. Reduce heat to low and cook gently for 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garam masala. Stir gently to mix, and serve.
Per serving (based on 4): 420 calories; 28 g fat; 23 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 8 g protein; 40 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 9 g fiber; 671 mg sodium; 89 mg calcium
Adapted from “Flavors of India” by Madhur Jaffrey
MARINATED CHICKPEA AND CAULIFLOWER SALAD
Yield: 6 to 8 servings
1 head cauliflower (2 pounds), cored and cut into 1-inch florets
Salt and pepper
1/4 teaspoon saffron threads, crumbled
3/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
10 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 small sprig fresh rosemary
1/4 cup sherry vinegar
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, also called garbanzo beans, rinsed
1 lemon, sliced thin
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
1. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in a large saucepan. Add cauliflower and 1 tablespoon salt and cook until florets begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Drain florets and transfer to a paper towel-lined baking sheet.
2. Combine 1/2 cup hot water and saffron in a bowl; set aside. Heat oil and garlic in a small saucepan over medium-low heat until fragrant and beginning to sizzle, but not browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Stir in sugar, paprika and rosemary, and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Off heat, stir in saffron mixture, vinegar, 2 teaspoons salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.
3. In a large bowl, combine florets, saffron mixture, chickpeas and lemon. Transfer mixture to a gallon-size resealable bag and refrigerate for at least 4 hours and up to 3 days, flipping bag occasionally. To serve, transfer cauliflower and chickpeas to a serving bowl with a slotted spoon and sprinkle with parsley.
Per serving (based on 6): 377 calories; 30 g fat; 4 g saturated fat; no cholesterol; 7 g protein; 27 g carbohydrate; 11 g sugar; 6 g fiber; 527 mg sodium; 71 mg calcium
Recipe from “The Complete Vegetarian Cookbook” by America’s Test Kitchen
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