July/August 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Ching Lee
Photos by Richard Green
Versatile cauliflower takes on colorful new roles
More online: Recipes
For those who are following food trends and keeping score, cauliflower is hot.
Chef Brandon Miller shows three popular dishes at his Carmel restaurant featuring cauliflower: a mixed, roasted salad with romesco sauce; lamb sliders with pickled cauliflower; and cauliflower horseradish gratin.
Like its cruciferous cousin kale, which has enjoyed its share of the spotlight recently, the ever-present but perhaps overlooked cauliflower is now being cited by food writers, chefs, market experts and nutrition gurus alike as one of the top foods to watch.
Cooking shows and recipe websites are all over it, highlighting the unexpected ways this common vegetable is turning up on plates and menus.
Rich in vitamin C, folate, fiber and other nutrients such as glucosinolates that may help fight cancer, cauliflower is often called a superfood for its many health benefits. But it is also being rediscovered as a culinary chameleon.
"I think it's gaining popularity because there are so many things you can do with cauliflower," said Melissa Halas-Liang, spokeswoman for the California Dietetic Association.
Think beyond traditional steaming, Halas-Liang suggested. For example, try cauliflower grilled or roasted to bring out its sweet, nutty flavor, or puree it for a creamy soup. Cauliflower also can be used in many ethnic dishes such as Indian food.
Dietitian Melissa Halas-Liang
"I sauté it with caramelized onions, golden raisins, chickpeas and curry or turmeric, and that is my absolute favorite way to eat it," she said.
As a dietitian, Halas-Liang said she appreciates cauliflower's versatility, as it can be incorporated into a variety of dishes to help people boost their intake of vegetables. For example, cauliflower can be turned into faux rice or used in place of flour to make pizza crust. It can also help cut calories while adding volume and depth: Think cauliflower mashed potatoes.
At Mundaka, a Spanish tapas restaurant in Carmel, head chef Brandon Miller began offering his unique take on cauliflower long before the vegetable was in vogue. He said he even tried to take the option off his menu once and received "a lot of blowback from customers."
"I use it in a lot of different ways, so it's throughout the menu," he said.
Tanimura & Antle cauliflower manager Cody Baker stands in a field of cauliflower near Salinas.
One popular dish is a cauliflower gratin in which the cauliflower stem is cooked and pureed with horseradish to make a sauce, into which Miller folds cauliflower florets and Gruyère cheese. The gratin is then baked until golden brown.
For those who complain about cauliflower being bland, Miller said the right sauce can do wonders. At his restaurant, he recently introduced a new dish featuring cauliflower: a mixed, roasted salad served with a classic romesco sauce, which is made by roasting nuts, garlic, bread and tomatoes and pureeing them together with vinegar and extra-virgin olive oil.
"The other thing that's so great about cauliflower is it comes in a variety of colors," Halas-Liang said, referring to the purple, orange and green varieties now available in stores and farmers markets.
When I give nutrition presentations to kids, I bring purple cauliflower and I will say, 'Who colored this cauliflower?' When they see it, they all want to try it."
The big buzz on cauliflower has not been lost on those who grow and market the crop.
During harvest employees cut, trim and bag the heads, which then go on a carousel to be sized and packed.
Diana McClean, marketing director of Tanimura & Antle, a California grower and shipper of fresh vegetables, said food trends are definitely on her radar, but that doesn't mean the company is ramping up its cauliflower production just yet.
"Because a trend is just a trend," she said, "we've got to be careful not to fill the ground with cauliflower when we read it in the magazine. We need some real, concrete evidence of a trend actually taking hold before we're going to commit any sort of resources or acreage to that."
Often what happens with food trends, she said, is if restaurants and food service operations begin using more of a product, the trend is mirrored at the grocery store the next season.
"Consumers will be eating out and trying cauliflower and eating more of it and in more unique preparations, and then the demand for cauliflower at the retail level will increase as those consumers take those ideas into their home kitchens," McClean said.
Still, it's difficult to gauge how much trends drive sales, she said, noting that cauliflower tends to have consistent, steady demand.
"Cauliflower has always been a popular vegetable," she said. "More attention is being spotlighted on it. But is it popular because the spotlight is on it? Or is the spotlight on it because it's popular?"
While cauliflower is considered a cool-season vegetable, farmers grow it year-round in California, the nation's largest producer, accounting for nearly 88 percent of fresh cauliflower and all processing cauliflower, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The crop is grown in many areas of the state during different times of the year, moving from the central and southern coast to the San Joaquin Valley to the southern deserts.
At Tanimura & Antle's fields in Salinas, cauliflower is harvested from mid-March through mid-November, at which time the company's desert production begins harvest, said cauliflower manager Cody Baker. Cauliflower's growing season is typically 100 to 110 days, he noted.
The crop is harvested by hand—and then trimmed, wrapped, sized and packed right in the field. From there, the heads go to a cooler and then are delivered to food service and retail customers.
With cauliflower growing around him constantly, Baker said he likes eating some every day—right out of the ground.
"You're in the field with it all day, so you can't help but take a bite and try it," he said. "There's nothing better than fresh produce straight from the field."
Calling on cauliflower
Carmel chef Brandon Miller prepares several dishes with cauliflower. This popular choice uses the vegetable's stems, horseradish and rich Gruyère cheese for the sauce, tossed with cauliflower florets and additional cheese to create a creamy, golden-brown gratin.