Creamy-white Cauliflowers are immature flower structures eaten before they have chance to open. The vivid-green Romanesco is a cauliflower too and has become more and more popular in recent years. Both have a similar texture and flavour whether tasted raw or cooked, though the Romanesco has a little more depth. The fascinating Fibonacci spiral whorls of the Romanesco, along with that incredible colour, surely explain its appeal. Cauliflowers also come with purple ‘curds’ (the edible head), and there are yellow/orange varieties too but don’t expect them to keep their colour after cooking. Broccoli is another immature flower structure and in Italy cauliflowers can, confusingly, sometimes be referred to as broccolo. Both are members of the Brassica (cabbage) family but cauliflower and broccoli look distinctly different, with broccoli, generally, producing looser flower stalks.
It’s believed the Arabs in the Middle Ages developed the Cauliflower and the first mention of them being grown here in the UK is in the last decade of the 16th century. It was said the best seeds came from Aleppo. There are summer, winter and intermediate varieties of Cauliflower, which is why they are almost always available throughout the year. They grow best in cool, moist conditions, though, so we tend to see the best crops early and late in the year.
Cauliflower is a vegetable which is delicious eaten raw when you can detect that slight heat of the brassica family – a little like raw Brussels sprout. Separate into florets and dip into a dish of Bagna Cauda (a hot butter, garlic and anchovy dip). Cauliflower ferments and pickles really well and it is an essential part of Piccalilli.
As a rule, for cauliflower, the shorter the cooking time, the better the flavour. Its delicate flavour, some would say, blandness, means the Cauliflower carries other flavours such as spices well. A dish of Cauliflower Cheese is a classic, of course, with bay and clove flavouring the sauce. Cauliflower’s creamy texture lends itself to a soup. The addition of cream and potatoes tempers any possible sulphurousness attributable to over-cooked brassica. A scattering of toasted almonds brings texture to the softness of a side dish of cooked Cauliflower.
Eggs go well too. There is a lovely simple recipe in Rachel Roddy’s book Five Quarters for serving tender florets of Cauliflower dressed with oil, lemon, garlic, anchovies and black olives and served with warm boiled eggs. In the same book, you’ll find a very good Pasta e Broccoli recipe that works with either Romanesco Cauliflower or the looser-stalked Broccoli. Meera Sodha has a recipe in her book Fresh India for Whole roasted Cauliflower with Mussalam which smothers the brassica in a tomato sauce spiced up with ginger, black pepper, garlic, cinnamon, cloves and chilli powder. There’s also a good recipe for Cauliflower Korma with Blackened Raisins too and I highly recommend the Cauliflower Cheese + Chilli Stuffed Roti, which uses finger chillies and cumin for spicing.
Oh, and don’t think you have to discard all of the leaves. The more tender, inner leaves are good to eat too.