The many uses of cauliflower: an overlooked and underrated winter veg
The cauliflower—it has to be said—is not often the first vegetable to come to mind when thinking of interesting and exotic dishes. But with some imagination and the host of other ingredients available at Borough Market, this highly versatile vegetable can be elevated far above bland cauliflower cheese or the overboiled veg that disintegrates at the first touch of the fork.
“The weather has made things a bit tricky, but we’ve had some really lovely cauliflowers in last week with firm, compact, white heads and good healthy leaves,” says Gary at Elsey and Bent. “They also have a real weight to them—as soon as I picked them up, I knew they would cook well.”
Be sure to buy them with the leaves on because they protect the head until you want to use it. “You see the leaves cut off a lot in supermarkets, which might look good on the shelves but it is very easy to bruise the head. A good, fresh cauliflower should last up to a week in the fridge, but any bruised vegetable won’t last as long.”
Borough Market demonstration chef Celia Brooks is a real fan. “It is one of the most beneficial vegetables out there and we should all be eating more of it,” she says. “This shouldn’t be a problem though because it is also one of the most versatile vegetables.” Her north Indian-inspired jewelled cauliflower freekeh pilao showcases this beautifully, using as it does pomegranate seeds and saffron to completely transform the humble vegetable.
“In fact, don’t think about it in terms of a traditional vegetable, because it can be used as a grain or sauce as well as in the more traditional ways,” Celia explains. “You can make cauliflower couscous, which simply involves whizzing it up raw in a food processor until it is kind of crumb size then using it as a grain substitute. I use it that way a lot.” Celia says that this is a good time to use that microwave in the corner because it is a great way to steam the cauliflower ‘grains’.
“You can also use it raw, in a tabbouleh-style salad for example,” or to make a smooth, creamy sauce which goes wonderfully well with potatoes or pasta. “Break the head into the florets and simmer them in some milk, garlic and salt for a little while and then puree it in a blender.
“It is a real shame that people throw away the leaves. It is like a kind of bonus vegetable,” she says. “Just cut away the woody core, slice them thinly and treat them like a cabbage. They are lovely.” In fact, Celia has a recipe which uses the leaves as an edible backdrop to a dramatic cauliflower recipe.
“Remove the leaves, then cut the base of the cauliflower flat so it will sit nicely on a plate. Chop up the leaves and blanch them in a big pan of salted water. Then cook the cauliflower whole for about five minutes in the same water, strain it and place it on top of the leaves on a baking tray. Cover the cauliflower liberally with a topping and bake it. You can get really creative, with the toppings.”
You could simply brush it with butter, make a vinaigrette using olive oil, mustard, capers and herbs to pour over, or make a crust using your favourite Indian spices and cashew nuts blended into a paste with a little oil. “The possibilities are endless.” Once you have applied your topping, bake the whole thing for roughly 30 minutes, depending on the size of the cauliflower. “It makes a wonderful centrepiece on the table.”
If you want to really want to see cauliflower in a whole new light, you can drop in to Borough Plates at 1 Cathedral Street. Chef Justin Saunders has chosen it to feature in two of the dishes in this pop-up’s revolving menu: once you have tried his mushroom pâté with mushrooms, cauliflower, and black truffle, try his spiced cauliflower and yoghurt dish.
If you need more inspiration for ways to spice up your cauli, Borough Market regular Ed Smith also has a couple of ideas. His recipes for spiced yoghurt whole roast cauliflower and fresh date and roast cauliflower salad would be a great place to start. With all these dishes to choose from, you need never approach this often overlooked vegetable in the same way again.