Flower Power

Cauliflower’s appeal is more than a trend.


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Nate Berrigan-Dunlop of Starline Social Club shows off cauliflower creations.

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

It may seem newly popular on local menus, but cauliflower has long been an irresistible blank canvas for chefs of all backgrounds.

With its sturdy, nourishing heft and filigreed florets, the vegetable’s neat trick of being both hearty and delicate, rich yet neutrally flavored, gives it unique cross-cultural versatility. For some cooks, it’s a robust winter essential; for others, it’s a refreshing ingredient for salads—or conduit of curried heat.

“Cauliflower is like tofu,” said Nate Berrigan-Dunlop, head chef of Oakland’s Starline Social Club. “It’s a good conveyor for whatever flavor you want to use.”

Photo by D. Ross Cameron

Starline Social Club's cauliflower is surprisingly colorful.

It can also be surprisingly colorful. At Starline, Berrigan-Dunlop decorates his plates with bright orange and purple cauliflower from Yolo County’s Riverdog Farm. Cultivated with extra beta carotene (found in carrots) and anthocyanin (in red cabbage), cheddar and graffiti cauliflower varietals feature roughly the same flavor as the paper-white standard, just in vibrant, regal hues.

The florets add eye candy to hangar steak, and crown Starline’s cauliflower toast—grilled levain spread with ricotta, almonds, shallots and rosé-plumped currants, topped with roasted cauliflower—a sultry-sweet bite at a spot where, as Berrigan-Dunlop said, “the roots of the Oakland tree run deep.”

At Piedmont Avenue’s Ba-Bite, chef and co-owner Mica Talmor’s Israeli roots mean a wealth of flavors from North Africa, the Middle East, and the occasional foray into Talmor’s Ashkenazi background—but one of the informal eatery’s most popular dishes is all Mediterranean.

“It’s very Spanish,” said Talmor of her sought-after cauliflower salad. Talmor bathes white cauliflower in a saffron tincture, roasts it, and pairs it with pitted green Picholine olives, cherry tomatoes, red onion, and raisins, then tosses the mixture in citrus vinaigrette with orange zest and a bit of honey. (If ordered as an entrée portion, the salad is met with fresh baby spinach and Manchego.)

Photo by Lori Eanes

Ba-Bite features flash-fried cauliflower.

A veg-lover’s haven, Ba-Bite also features flash-fried cauliflower with tahini and cumin, and a curried cauliflower soup. For a truly tangy bite, try Talmor’s pickled cauliflower, naturally fermented in salt water with garlic and spices but no vinegar. 

Not to be outdone, Juhu Beach Club’s chef-owner Preeti Mistry throws her Manchurian cauliflower into the ring. “With the utmost humbleness, I will say we have the best cauliflower dish in the Bay Area,” said the cheeky Mistry. According to celeb-chef Anthony Bourdain, she might be right. Bourdain famously dubbed the dish her “Stairway to Heaven,” after visiting the Temescal eatery for an episode of his CNN show Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, in 2015. The dish is Juhu’s most popular, and nearly always sells out.

Mistry’s recipe combines cauliflower, carrots, and onions marinated in a spice blend that is “strong on the mustard, fenugreek and chile, as well as black salt.” The vegetables are then battered, deep-fried, and tossed with Mistry’s sweet-and-sour sauce. London-born, U.S.-raised Mistry is of Indian descent, and has described herself as being “of the universe.” Her Manchurian cauliflower is Indian, Chinese, and out of this world.

Additional interesting cauliflower preparations from around the East Bay: roasted cauliflower and baby kale with pignoli Romesco at District; tempura cauliflower with Thai basil at Shakewell, cauliflower risotto with fried capers, leeks, almonds, and currants at Hutch Bar & Kitchen, and aloo gobi Indian tacos and spud and flower vegan burritos at Curry Up Now.

 

Published online on March 30, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.

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