When cauliflower, the palest member of the cabbage family, is roasted to a golden brown, it turns deliciously robust and slightly sweet. The high heat caramelizes its natural sugars and seems to tamp down the bitter, cabbage-like taste. Roasted cauliflower absorbs a little of the oil and most of the seasonings while retaining some of its firm texture.
Roasted cauliflower is a great candidate for Indian spices such as cumin, ginger, mustard seeds and turmeric. Or try tossing it with chopped olives, garlic, rosemary and/or sage. How about a drizzle of balsamic vinegar or fresh lemon juice? Even when it’s served unadorned, straight from the pan, roasted cauliflower is a hearty side dish or winning small plate.
Our farmers are showcasing cauliflower in a variety of colors these days. Along with the familiar white heads, you’ll find purple, pale green, buttery yellow and bright orange. Though they all taste pretty much the same, the colored cauliflowers tend to have a slightly nuttier flavor.
When choosing cauliflower, look for heads that are heavy for their size and free of dark spots. The florets should be densely packed, firm and bright. The leaves should be intact and vibrant, not limp or wilted.
While most folks discard the leaves, I chop them and add them to whatever I’m cooking. Although you can certainly find serviceable, consistently good cauliflower in our grocery stores throughout the year, local cauliflower is fresher and thus tastier.
How cauliflower is prepared for roasting can make a difference, too. I prefer to cut or break the florets into smaller pieces so they can all be browned quickly and evenly either in the oven or in skillet. Pan-roasting florets on the stove takes a little less time than in the oven and is easier to do on the fly.
To pan-roast cauliflower, sear the florets in butter or oil over high heat, reduce the heat a bit, cover so they become slightly tender, then remove the lid and continue to cook until they’re nicely browned.
At this point, they’re ready to toss with pasta and Parmesan cheese or to sprinkle with curry spices and serve over rice, or to be scattered into a green salad, onto pizza or to serve alongside roast chicken, pork or lamb. But just try to get them to the table quickly. I’ve been known to eat most of these nubby browned florets right out of the pan.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.