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Cooking | THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Bring out the hidden beauty

Chefs know that cauliflower is more than just a rustic vegetable. It can be a dazzling star in many dishes.

November 12, 2003|Russ Parsons | 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

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