Cool as a Cauliflower

It’s an often-overlooked workhorse of a winter vegetable, once humbled in this country as a colorless vehicle for uninspired cheese sauce. But as good cooks the world over have known for centuries, cauliflower is anything but common.


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Photo by Lori Eanes

It’s an often-overlooked workhorse of a winter vegetable, once humbled in this country as a colorless vehicle for uninspired cheese sauce and famously disdained by Mark Twain as “nothing but cabbage with a college education.” But as good cooks the world over have known for centuries, cauliflower is anything but common.

Mild, creamy-hued, and elegant, with a delicate, earthy bite and meaty, forgiving texture, cauliflower can be sliced into steaks, divided into florets, or crumbled into a couscous-like consistency given its well-packed clusters of tiny, immature buds. It can even be ground into flour.

Though now generally obtainable year-round, this member of the brassica family truly thrives in cool, coastal winter climes like the East Bay’s. Vibrant purple and orange varietals denote the presence of anthocyanin (found in red cabbage) and beta-carotene, respectively; greener heads are broccoflower, and the fractal-spiked wonder Romanesco a produce-bin standout of arresting beauty.

All are heavy with nutrients—iron and vitamin C among them—and low in carbohydrates, making cauliflower a solid staple for vegetarians and anyone pursuing a healthful diet. Culturally, cauliflower is an ideal canvas for culinary expression: In India, gobi provides the backbone for spiced, fried, and simmered curry and masala dishes; in Turkey, karnabahar florets are roasted and dipped into a thick Turkish-yogurt sauce made with garlic, chili flakes, and the juice of a lemon.

When asked which ingredient to him best embodied winter, Italian-born chef Giuseppe Naccarelli of Trabocco Kitchen and Cocktails in Alameda announced his choice with a matter-of-fact, Italian finality (almost a shrug). Fittingly, the word “cauliflower” in Naccarelli’s native accent is lengthened to emphasize the “flower”—a well-deserved flourish. At Trabocco, Naccarelli incorporates cauliflower into pasta dishes, soups, and sides for main courses such as roasted whole branzino.

 

Cauliflower Gratin

Recipe From Chef Giuseppe Naccarell

1 large head of cauliflower, trimmed, cut into florets

1 3/4 cups heavy whipping cream

1 large shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage

2 teaspoons olive oil

3 ounces diced pancetta (optional)

1/2 cup plain dry breadcrumbs

1/2 cup pine nuts, lightly toasted

2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley

2 cups grated Parmesan cheese

 

Preheat the oven to 375. Butter 13-by-9-by-2-inch glass baking dish and set aside. Fill a large bowl with ice and cold water. Cook the cauliflower in large pot of generously salted boiling water until the cauliflower is crisp-tender—about 5 minutes. Drain. Transfer the vegetables to bowl of ice water to cool. Drain well.

Combine the cream, shallots, and sage in large saucepan and bring that to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer the mixture for about 10 minutes, until reduced by about one-fourth. Season with salt and pepper. Remove from heat. Cool slightly.

Next, heat 1 teaspoon oil in large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add pancetta (if using) and cook until browned and crispy, stirring frequently. Remove pancetta from pan, and drain on paper towel. Wipe the skillet clean with paper towel and add the remaining teaspoon of oil. Add breadcrumbs; stir until beginning to brown, about 2 minutes. Transfer to bowl; cool. Stir in pine nuts and parsley. Season with salt and pepper.

In a large bowl, toss the cooked cauliflower with Parmesan, add pancetta, and add salt and pepper to taste. Add vegetables to prepared baking dish. Pour cream mixture evenly over vegetables.

Cover the gratin with foil. Bake covered 30 minutes. Uncover and sprinkle the breadcrumb topping over it, and bake uncovered 15 minutes longer.

Chef Giuseppe Naccarelli’s cauliflower gratin is comfort food at its best.

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