From boring, bland and wet, to celebrated vegetable du jour, Alex Rushmer offers an ode to cauliflower
I think I might be ready to make a commitment. And a public one, at that. I’ve been toying with the idea for a while, but didn’t feel ready, until now, to fully admit it to the population at large. So here we go. Deep breaths.
Cauliflower is my favourite vegetable. It is, in my view, the best vegetable on the entire planet. And I’m not just saying that because it can be locally and sustainably sourced and grows almost year round in Fenland soil. Or because, for the last two years it has been – very much – the vegetable du jour. Trendiness has nothing to do with it. I promise I’m not late to the cauli-party.
I am, however, willing to admit that it took a while for me to get fully on board. Early memories of those poor white florets being boiled into oblivion stayed with me for a long time, the sulphurous pong lingering in the nostrils and sitting heavy like so many school dinners. Cauliflower collapsing under the weight of a spoon, leaching out a sad puddle of bland water, soaking across the plate and contaminating the rest of my meal. I thought that was me done forever, those gastronomic crimes creating memories too deep to allow forgiveness. Thankfully, I was wrong.
My gateway dish came at some point in my early twenties. Inevitably, and unsurprisingly, it involved a Mornay sauce and some breadcrumbs. Despite these additions, there were still echoes of those terrifying puddles of cooking water, only now they were made slightly more palatable by the addition of cheap cheddar melted into a bland bechamel. But for the first time I saw a flicker of something important: I saw potential. Cauliflower cheese wasn’t something I grew up eating but I could just about see to making space for it in my future.
“I learned a fundamental lesson – that this brassica has a near fatal aversion to water”
From then on it was a steady slide into appreciation, fondness, admiration and, finally to where we are now: adoration. This path hasn’t always been an easy one but once I learned a fundamental lesson about cauliflower – that this particular brassica has a near fatal aversion to water – things moved on at a bountiful and wonderful pace.
I learned to roast, not boil, individual florets before covering them in a cheese sauce, spiked with mustard, nutmeg, cayenne, or even truffle and baking to comforting glory. I made velvety soups with little more than a splash of milk, a few spices and some chopped cauliflower slowly caramelised in brown butter. I cut it razor thin on a mandolin and dropped into sweetened cider vinegar and even turned it into vibrant yellow piccalilli, crunchy, sweet, sour and fragrant.
I even adapted a recipe from Thug Kitchen (if you don’t know this book, you really should) and battered, fried then covered bite-sized pieces in hot sauce to make a vegan ‘buffalo wing’ good enough to satisfy even the most ardent carnivore.
But my favourite method is one I took from a René Redzepi book. It is one I return to time and time again and is probably the easiest and most versatile: a whole cauliflower, divested of its leaves and with its base trimmed so it rests flat, is roasted in a covered casserole with whatever flavours you wish to pair it with (one of the most exciting things about cooking caulis is just how welcoming they are to whatever spices or herbs you care to throw at it – they are like the friend who you know you can invite to any dinner party). Woody herbs, garlic and warm spices work particularly well but feel free to be bold and adventurous – rose water and dark chocolate is a crazy-sounding but wonderful combination.
Over two gentle hours (about 130 degrees) the base caramelises to a savoury, delicious brown and the rest of it steams and roasts at the same time until, in a deliciously ironic twist, it will collapse at the gentlest of touches: a fitting reminder of those school dinners of the past and just how far we’ve come since then.