Cauliflower: Develop its flavor with extra ingredients

  • Article by: JUDY HEVRDEJS , Chicago Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2012 - 3:01 PM

Don't simply steam the vegetable. Bring out its dimensions in many ways.

Chefs offer tips on adding flavor to cauliflower, a vegetable that gets little respect.

Photo: Bill Hogan, Chicago Tribune

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You consider yourself a vegetable aficionado, buying Brussels sprouts by the stalk, munching beets of every stripe and crunching roasted kale chips with abandon.

But sometimes cauliflower confounds you.

You drench it with hollandaise or cheese sauce or ignore it completely, invoking Mark Twain's quip, "Cauliflower is nothing more than cabbage with a college education."

Too bad. You're missing out on some good eating.

"I love cooking cauliflower. I think it's multidimensional," says Angelo Sosa, "Top Chef" contestant and author of the new "Flavor Exposed: 100 Global Recipes From Sweet to Salty, Earthy to Spicy" (Kyle Books, $29.95).

"The texture is beautiful, very silky and smooth, so white and so earthy. And that beautiful cauliflower flavor is just magical," he adds. "After you cook it, you get a lot of nutty flavor and nutty aromas coming through."

Additions to the vegetable

So how does he coax flavor from cauliflower?

"I definitely would make something like a cauliflower flan or a panna cotta," says Sosa, chef/partner at restaurants Social Eatz and Anejo Tequileria in New York. "If I want more of a Mediterranean or Italian or Moroccan feel, maybe I'd macerate some beautiful golden raisins in some riesling or Japanese vinegar to contrast that."

He'll roast cauliflower or cook it in milk (sometimes soy milk so the nuttiness of both comes through) or turn it into a playful "couscous" by breaking cauliflower into florets, pulsing in a food processor until it breaks down into couscous-like pieces then cooking in a splash of water until just tender and dry. "You could add pine nuts, sliced almonds, dates," Sosa says. Just don't overcook it. "The goal is to retain its color."

And its flavor. "When I think about cauliflower, I think earthy, but I wouldn't say that it's equivalent to something like coffee, which is extremely earthy. On the other side of the pendulum, it would be in the realm of a parsnip, very light, very earthy, very sweet."

Sosa's attention to flavors (his book tackles sweet, salty, smoky, bitter, sour, spicy, earthy, nutty, umami in all sorts of pairings) was nurtured first in the kitchen of his late Aunt Carmen, then during his work with renowned chefs Alain Ducasse and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He understands the challenge of combining flavors, especially when a cook wants to amp up the flavor profile of mild vegetables, from cauliflower to carrots.

When people are hungry, they "tend to say 'I'm in the mood for something sour,' 'I'm in the mood for something spicy,'" Sosa says. "Home cooks need to figure out what kind of flavor they like."

His suggestion for learning what flavors meld well and how to balance them? Begin with an unseasoned carrot soup and divide it into three portions. "With one, I would take sweet, sour, salty. The carrot could be the sweet, the salty could be prosciutto and the sour could be Meyer lemon. The next one could be earthy, nutty, maybe I add some sesame," he says. "See what your palate gravitates to." And play with flavors.

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