Chances are cauliflower isn’t the first word that leaps to mind when you’re looking for fun in the kitchen. But colorful varieties of this usually pale broccoli relation are catching the attention of home cooks eager to liven up their dinner plates.
“People are looking for more exotic things. Cooking is becoming more of a recreational activity than a necessity,” said Kurt Alstede of Alstede Farms in Chester, who grows purple and yellow-orange cauliflower in addition to standard white varieties. “We see there’s a greater demand for different varieties and colors.”
Cheddar, an orange cauliflower variety, is both attractive and flavorful, said Mel Henninger, a vegetable specialist with the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences in New Brunswick. “When you tell people it’s called Cheddar, they take it and try to smell it. But it tastes and smells just like cauliflower,” he said. Popular white varieties include Snow Crown, Candid Charm, Rushmore and White Sails. As their names imply, their heads — also known as fleece or curds — are brilliant white when at their best. There are self-blanching (also known as self-wrapping) types, which means that as the curds grow, the leaves flop over the heads, shielding them from the sunlight. Some farmers take the trouble to secure the leaves with rubber bands to help the heads maintain their snowy appearance. “A lot of effort is made to keep them white, but they don’t taste any different,” said Henninger. (Ironically, consumers will pass up a white cauliflower tinged yellowish from sun exposure, but buy a bright yellow head. Go figure.)
Partially because of the costly labor required to cultivate snowy white cauliflower, there is little to no wholesale trade in it locally. “All the cauliflower is being grown by direct market farmers,” said Henninger.
“If somebody comes in for a box of fennel or broccoli rabe and wants some cauliflower, we have it. It’s just a supplemental item,” said Ralph Formisano of Formisano Farms in Buena. This year, however, the Formisanos planted their cauliflower late, so they don’t expect to have it much before Thanksgiving.
Alstede, on the other hand, has been harvesting cauliflower for sale at various tailgate markets since late May. “We could have cauliflower through the end of November. There have been years that we’ve had it in December,” he said. The cooler it gets, the better the cauliflower grows, and tastes.
A cruciferous vegetable rich in vitamins and minerals, cauliflower, like broccoli, is actually an undeveloped flower. Believed to be native to Asia Minor, cauliflower was cultivated by the ancient Romans. The English word for it comes from the Latin for stalk, caulis, and flower, floris. After the fall of the Roman Empire, Arab traders probably reintroduced the vegetable to points west. But it remains most appreciated in India, the Middle East, and other parts of the world influenced by Arab culture.
In hot weather, cauliflower curds have a tendency to bolt, noted Alstede. But despite the recent warm temperatures, he’s happy with the quality of his crop. Though local farmers have been known to produce cauliflower heads 14 inches in diameter and even bigger, most prefer to harvest them when they’re at six to 10 inches, said Henninger.
Good quality cauliflower will have tight, compact curds. Brown spots, a sign of bruising or excessive handling, can be cut out and should have no effect on flavor. Cauliflower can be stored, unwashed, for up to a week in plastic bag in the refrigerator.
To ensure even cooking, it’s a good idea to parboil cauliflower before batter-dipping and frying it or adding it to casseroles. When boiling cauliflower, cut a deep x into the stem end and place the head in four to five quarts of rapidly boiling salted water. Avoid overcooking. For a flavorful alternative, caramelize parboiled or thinly sliced raw cauliflower by sauteing in olive oil until lightly colored, seasoned with salt and pepper, and then lowering the heat and allowing it to cook until tender. Toss in a few sliced almonds, pine nuts or raisins, if you like. Just for the fun of it.