Peter Russell-Clarke Knows Cauliflower!

Cauliflower 1

Why is a cauliflower called ‘A cabbage with a college education?‘ When were cauliflowers only the size of tennis balls? And why are cauliflowers now being developed to be the size of golf balls?

Read on.

Cauliflowers are of the brassica family. As are broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts (they once saved Britain from invasion), pak choi, bok choi and other similar vegetables which, when cooked, produce compounds like ammonia and hydrogen sulfides. (The longer the cooking time, the more of these compounds are produced, so the more recognisable the smells become. So don’t overcook them and all will be well.)

Anyway, the flower of the cabbage was encouraged by a scientist in the 1700s to grow to be as large as a tennis ball. It wasn’t until it reached England that it was encouraged to grow to the size we know and love today Hence the ‘college education’ bit. These flowers are sometimes called ‘curds’ because they resemble milk curds and feel heavy for their size. If they are loose and spreading, they are over-mature (they are never that way at the Queen Vic.). A whole head takes about 20 minutes to boil, separated flowerets take about 5 minutes. Overcook them and they lose flavour and become mushy.

Originally the cabbage – (remember the cauliflower is a cabbage bred for its flower) – came from China via the Middle East. It was brought to Spain by the Moors, then on to Italy. It took 200 years before it became popular in England where they cooked it in milk to preserve its white flower. (Today we add a little lemon juice to the water we cook it in. Or microwave or steam it, which is my want.)

But still today we follow the example of our ancestors and top the cooked cauliflower with a good grated cheddar cheese. As regards to cooking cauliflower in milk, forget it. The habit died out in 1747 and even Mrs. Beaton sneered at it. But she didn’t sneer (nor do I) at their nutritional goodies which are said by good authorities to lower cancer rates.

The cauli contains phosphorus, sulphur, calcium, vitamins A, C and E, zinc and has considerable amounts of folic acid which is important for pregnant women as a deficiency in folic acid can be a source of Spina Bifida in babies. It also helps purify the blood, is good for the kidneys and bladder, high blood pressure and even constipation. Truly a wonder food,eh?

AND it tastes terrific with a few orange segments and some browned breadcrumbs. Oh, and it’s got ZERO cholesterol or fat. Maybe that’s why it’s known as the aristocrat of the cabbage family.

There are so many ways to tell you how to prepare and cook cauliflower it’s difficult to know which to give you, so I’ve selected the leaves which are normally thrown away. But remember, they’re cabbage leaves.

Cauliflower 2

Cauliflower Leaves

  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • cauliflower leaves
  • mustard seeds
  • good pinch of coriander
  • good pinch of cumin

Melt the butter in a large heavy frying pan. Wash the cauliflower leaves then cut off the thick stems and cut them into thin chips. Chop the leaves and throw the leaves and stems into the pan. Sprinkle with mustard seeds, cumin and coriander then gently cook, moving the leaves around to make sure they’re well coated and warm through. Serve as an entree.

OR, no matter if you’ve boiled or steamed your cauli, it benefits from a sauce – a tomato sauce, or light creamy sauce flavoured with cheese or mustard, or perhaps an Italian sauce incorporating chopped onion, capers, olives and anchovies, or fried breadcrumbs and chopped hard-boiled eggs. Cauliflower and cheese have a special affinity; cauliflower au gratin is a classic, and the traditional infant’s dish, cauliflower cheese can be delicious. Flowerets of raw cauliflower, arranged around a bowl of mustardy mayonnaise, make a good cocktail party offering, and cold cooked flowerets in a mustardy vinaigrette dressing make a delicious salad.

Cauliflower Au Gratin

  • 1 large cauliflower broken into flowerets
  • 55 g butter
  • 30 g plain flower
  • 450 ml milk
  • 150 ml cream
  • 85 g Emmental, Gruyere or Parmesan, freshly grated salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 55 g fresh white breadcrumbs

Cook the cauliflower in boiling water for 8 minutes. Drain and keep it hot. Make a sauce melting half the butter in a saucepan, take the pan off the heat, stir in the flour then the milk, cream and most of the cheese, stirring all the time. Put the pan back on the heat, still stirring, and continue to cook until the sauce starts to thicken. It should be fairly thin but creamy. Season with salt and pepper. Melt the rest of the butter in a frying pan, add the breadcrumbs, sprinkle with a little salt and fry until they are browned and crisp. Add the cauliflower and mix it around until every piece is coated with the fried breadcrumbs.

Transfer to a heatproof dish, pour the sauce around the cauliflower, sprinkle with the rest of the cheese and brown under the grill.

PS. Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable (meaning ‘cross‘ which is what the leaves do and which give protection against certain types of cancer). So, too are bok choi, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale and turnips – so don’t ignore them!

Oh, and the golf-ball size bit. Scientists are attempting to make the cauli small so it will freeze easily and transport better – strewth, the wheel turns, eh?