Yuk, cauliflower! That was certainly my feeling as a child. My mother could take a beautiful, white head of this lovely vegetable and with a modicum of effort, turn it into a fowl-smelling, gray lump of mushy fiber. I’d push the squishy florets around my plate with a fork like a slow-moving earthmover. Since I couldn’t leave the table until either my plate was clean or I outlasted my mother’s patience, I spent many evenings building cauliflower roads. Long before I became a rebellious teenager, my mother gave up, and when she and my father ate cauliflower, I found an alternative vegetable on my plate.
With adulthood, my attitude didn’t improve. I dreaded the all too frequent airplane meal accompanied by a mixture of overcooked cauliflower and broccoli. Sometimes the airlines provided variety by adding a few carrots to the dish, but the cauliflower was still inedible. At banquets and other semi-public dining occasions, I seemed to encounter cauliflower much too often. And at private homes, the hors d’oeuvre always seemed to be raw cauliflower served with some strange, sticky dip. Yuk!
But after five decades of avoiding cauliflower, something happened recently. I don’t remember being struck by lightening or seeing an image of the Madonna on my refrigerator door, but for some reason I decided to purchase and prepare some cauliflower. The preparation process wasn’t unfamiliar. I had prepped many heads of this white stuff in various French-kitchen sojourns (although I avoided eating any). The results of my first tentative steps into twenty-first century cauliflower imbibing led me to venture further into this world. Before I knew it, I was eating cauliflower three or four times a week. The taste was exciting, the texture exquisite, and the aroma enchanting!
Although I have been enjoying cauliflower for only a short time, the French have been partaking in it for more than 400 years.1 Apparently originating in Cyprus,2 cauliflower may have been known to the Romans, though proof of this contention is, to my knowledge, not available. The Romans were familiar with other cabbages (and cauliflower is related to other cabbages). Vehling speculates that the recipe in Apicius for cymas et cauliculos — translated by Vehling as young cabbage, sprouts — includes cauliflower and broccoli.3 Olivier de Serres discusses cauliflower’s early French cultivation in Le Théâtre d’agricvltvre et mesnage de champs published in 1600,4 and in 1651, La Verenne wrote what may have been the first instructions for how to cook cauliflower:5
Separate the cauliflower into branches. Peel the branches. Discard any rotten pieces. Next wash the cauliflower and cook in a pot along with some meat, or in some salted water with some bread crumbs and a little butter. It should remain very white. When cooked, drain well as with asparagus. Serve with a sauce like asparagus, or with the juice from roast meat.
Alternatively, cauliflower in the shape of fritters can be boiled and served along with white cabbage and a cauliflower sauce. The cauliflower is first boiled in meat stock, or in salted water, or in wine with salt, a little vinegar, and fine herbs.
A few years later, Pierre de Lune published two cauliflower recipes in his Le Cuisinier.6 The recipes are choux-fleurs au beurre blanc (cauliflower with white butter sauce) and choux-fleurs au jus de mouton (cauliflower with mutton stock). The first is similar to recipes still found today. (A version is presented in the recipe section accompanying this article.) The second recipe is a bit archaic. In that recipe, cauliflower is first rapidly cooked in water with salt, butter, and a clove. It is then drained and fried gently in pork fat with parsley, chervil, thyme, chives, and salt. When served, some mutton stock and a little vinegar are spooned over the cauliflower and the dish is seasoned with white pepper.
Today, cauliflower is grown year-round in Brittany, with 92% of the total domestic production,7 and seasonally in Manche, Provence, and Nord-Pas-de-Calais.8 France, with its annual production of 4.9M tons, is the world’s fourth largest producer of cauliflower.9 On a trip to Brittany in October, 2003, I observed extensive fields of giant heads of cauliflower plus a couple of farms that specialized in miniature heads of cauliflower for use in specialty restaurants. The cooperative that handled distribution of the small heads claimed to be shipping product daily to as far away as California and Japan.
Cauliflower is a member of the mustard family (genius Brassica) along with cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and turnips.10 The head of cauliflower is actually mostly stem tissue with a sterile mass of undeveloped flower buds attached at its terminus.11 The white color is from a group of “invisible” pigments called anthocyanins. When cooked in alkaline water, the pigment displays itself as a cream or yellowish color.12 The white color is also because the leaves of the plant cover the head, shielding it from the sun and preventing the formation of chlorophyll.13
Along with the other members of the mustard family, cauliflower is known for its pervasive odor when overcooked.14 The odor is due to the presence of isothiocyanates, sometimes called mustard oils. In the living plant, the isothiocyanates are bound to the sugar modules and are inactive. When cooked, the isothiocyanates break down into various compounds including hydrogen sulfide, ammonia, mercaptans, and methyl sulfide. The more the cauliflower is cooked, the stronger the odor becomes.15
When purchased, the cauliflower head should be tight and compact, firm, white, and undamaged. No green shoots should be growing between the florets. The outer leaves should be very crisp. Cauliflower is usually sold by the piece, not by weight. If only the florets are to be used in the preparation, about half of the head will be wasted.16 The core of the cauliflower is quite edible and can be used in recipes where the final product is pureed.
After having researched recipes to expand my cauliflower repertoire, looking through a couple of centuries of possible sources, I found that the variety of recipes available was actually a little slim. The recipes in many books tended to duplicate those found in other books. In the end, I was able to cull a variety of recipes that spanned almost 350 years. I found recipes that are served hot and recipes that are served cold; recipes of just cauliflower and recipes where cauliflower is only one of the principal ingredients; recipes for soups, salads, and side dishes; recipes that use baking, boiling, steaming, frying, or broiling to cook the cauliflower; and recipes where the cauliflower is served slightly crunchy and others where the cauliflower is pureed. To check them out, click on the “recipes” button at the bottom of this page.
Now that I’m eating cauliflower multiple times each week, I’m quite well acquainted with this vegetable I once loathed and avoided. It’s not a love affair, but maybe a close friendship.
1. T. Sarah Peterson, Acquired Taste: The French Origins of Modern Cooking, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, p. 120.
2. Harold McGee, On Food and Cooking, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984, p. 199.
3. Joseph Dommers Vehling, Apicius: Cookery and Dining in Imperial Rome, Chicago: Walter M. Hill, 1936; reprint, Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1977, p. 80.
4. Barbara Ketcham Wheaton, Savoring the Past: The French Kitchen and Table from 1300 to 1789, New York: Scribner, 1983, p. 66.
5. François Pierre de la Varenne, Le Cuisiner François, 3rd? ed., Lyon: Jacques Canier, 1680, pp. 113-4. In French.
6. Pierre de Lune, Le Cuisinier, 1656. Reprinted in L’art de la cuisine fançaise au xviie sièle, Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages, 1995, pp. 276-7. In French.
7. Bretagne Inovation. Formerly online at Innoba :: Brittany region (France).
8. Larousse Gastronomique, ed. Patrice Maubourguet, Paris: Larousse-Bordas, 1996, p. 274. In French.
9. The top five cauliflower producers in the world are India (72M tons), China (71M tons), Italy (6M tons), France (5M tons), and the United States (3M tons). Vegetables and Melons Situation and Outlook Yearbook, Market and Trade Economics Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Department of Agriculture, July 2003, p. 4.
10. McGee, On Food and Cooking, p. 156.
11. Ibid., p. 146.
12. Anne Gardiner and Sue Wilson, The Inquisitive Cook, ed. Pat Murphy, The Accidental Scientist, New York: Henry Holt and Company, Inc., 1998, p. 30.
13. McGee, On Food and Cooking, p. 199.
14. Gardiner and Wilson, The Inquisitive Cook, p. 24.
15. McGee, On Food and Cooking, pp. 156-7.
16. Larousse Gastronomique, ed. Patrice Maubourguet and Jane Birch (English edition), trans. Rosetta International, New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers, 2001, p. 234.
Recettes de chou-fleur
blanc de chou-fleur en crème de moutarde
browned cauliflower with a mustard-cream sauce
chou-fleur à la grecque
chilled, cooked, lemon-flavored cauliflower served with a sauce made of pureed cauliflower
chou-fleur à la parmesane
cauliflower cooked with Parmesan cheese
chou-fleur à la polonaise
cooked cauliflower topped with hard-cooked eggs, parsley, and fried bread crumbs
chou-fleur à la vapeur, sauce roquefort
steamed cauliflower with a Roquefort-cheese sauce
chou-fleur rôti à la vinaigrette
roasted cauliflower served with a vinaigrette sauce
slowly pan-fried cauliflower
choux-fleurs au beurre blanc
cooked cauliflower with a white-butter sauce
choux-fleurs au gratin
a traditional cauliflower baked with a two-cheese and breadcrumb topping
crème de potiron et de chou-fleur aux noix de St. Jacques
pureed cauliflower and pumpkin soup served with a scallop
gratin chou-fleur au Saint-Marcellin
cauliflower baked with onions and bacon and topped with slices of Saint-Marcellin cheese
« hure » de raie au chou-fleur cru, légumes au sirop de tomate
terrine of skate wing, raw cauliflower, tomato, and capers served with a mixture of vegetables served in a tomato syrup
la crème de chou-fleur caramélisé au foie gras Chez Tante Louise
pureed cauliflower soup served with a foie gras garnish
mousse de chou-fleur
baked, cauliflower custard
œufs mollets, sauce hollandaise aux épices
steamed cauliflower, ham, and green onions served with a curried hollandaise sauce and a soft-cooked egg
purée gratinée de chou-flour et de tomate
pureed cauliflower and tomato served with a cheese topping
purée mousse de chou-fleur
smooth, pureed cauliflower
salade de chou-fleur au curry
cauliflower salad served with a curry-flavored vinaigrette
mixed vegetable salad served with a mayonnaise dressing
soupe froide de chou-fleur aux pommes
cold cauliflower soup garnished with apple