Vegetables go in and out of fashion, just like hemlines. (They have always done so among those wealthy enough to have the luxury of choice, so you can pipe down about the last days of Rome at the back.) Take kale, a peasanty cabbage once so despised that the great Jane Grigson declined even to mention it in her otherwise exhaustive Vegetable Book. Earlier this decade, it was briefly the hippest thing ever to hit a menu, before succumbing to the first law of fashion (anything popular is uncool) and being replaced by a similarly unpromising candidate: the cauliflower.
A dowdy, pallid thing once rarely seen without a homely cheese sauce, cauliflower is now everywhere, with Forbes magazine proffering it as “the new kale”. Just as kale is now a crisp, cauliflower is now apparently a substitute for both carbohydrate and protein if the pushers of cauliflower rice, cauliflower pizza bases and cauliflower steaks are to be believed. But I can forgive them all for bringing the whole roasted cauliflower into my life.
Not only does it make an impressive centrepiece (the vegetable equivalent of a rib roast, perhaps), but the brassica’s ability to take on other flavours makes it incredibly versatile, too – once you’ve successfully navigated the perfect textural tightrope between crunchy and mushy and worked out how to make it taste of something. Fortunately, I’ve done the hard work for you.
The variety and cut
Cauliflowers have really risen to the occasion via a fashionable new range of zingy colours and interesting textures, most of which taste exactly the same as the common white variety. April Bloomfield notes in A Girl and Her Greens that the green sort can look nice against a red sauce, but she urges readers to seek out a romanesco cauliflower “with its spiral florets, like a veg from another planet”. It does, indeed, look striking on the plate, although its pointed florets prove tricky to brown in the pan, as her recipe demands. Less densely packed than the ordinary kind, I would recommend using romanesco if you want to pair it with a dip, as in Yotam Ottolenghi’s recipe, but the standard variety, of whatever colour, is easier to slice and serve as a main dish.
Trim off the outer leaves completely, as Julia Moskin recommends in the New York Times, and you will miss out on a delicious crispy bonus. There doesn’t seem to be much need to hollow out the stalk, either, as Bloomfield suggests, or to cross it like a brussels sprout, as Jamie Oliver does: a certain firmness in the middle makes a satisfying contrast to the softer florets.
As I’ve found to my cost, roasted cauliflower is all too easy to overcook – and not even the most devoted superfan likes mushy cauliflower. But neither do most of us enjoy chewing through a raw stalk, and cooking it through without taking the outer florets too far is surprisingly troublesome.
Oliver and Moskin both roast the cauliflower from raw, while Bloomfield browns it in a hot pan first, as one would a joint of meat. Ottolenghi and the Israeli-born, New Orleans-based chef Alon Shaya both boil it before roasting. (Shaya’s background is relevant because this dish is credited to another Israeli chef, Eyan Shani, who published a recipe for a whole roasted cauliflower in 2006; Shaya is said to have introduced the idea to the US.)
It is possible to achieve decent results using the oven alone, although I wouldn’t roast it covered, as Oliver suggests; even with 20 minutes with the lid off at the end, it will never achieve the same degree of charring that makes the versions of Ottolenghi and Shaya so very delicious. Bloomfield browns the cauliflower all over in a hot pan before pot-roasting it, which improves the situation, but it is a fiddly task and the final texture is still mushier than I would like.
If you really don’t want to dirty two pans, Moskin’s recipe – which roasts the cauliflower uncovered, but with a dish of water in the bottom of the oven to create steam – gives the best results of the three, but it is worth investing an extra few minutes and cooking the cauliflower almost through on the hob before introducing it to the oven. This means you can crank the temperature up really high for maximum flavour, as in Shaya’s recipe, without worrying that the outside will burn before the inside is cooked. His version would be even better, however, if he gave the cauliflower 10 minutes to dry off before baking, as Ottolenghi suggests.
Shaya cooks the cauliflower in a mixture of white wine, olive oil, lemon juice and butter, flavoured with salt, red pepper flakes, sugar and bay, giving it a spicy tanginess. While this is undeniably pleasant, it overpowers the delicate flavour of the cauliflower itself. The same goes for Oliver’s recipe, which rubs the raw vegetable with a paste made from garlic, smoked paprika, thyme and olive oil: all flavours that go well with cauliflower, but not ones that allow it to shine. Ottolenghi’s simpler method – cooking the cauliflower in salted water, then rubbing it with butter and olive oil before baking – seems to make the vegetable taste more intensely of itself, which seems only fair, given it is the star attraction.
Cauliflower’s bland sweetness makes it very versatile: you could make this dish the centrepiece of almost any feast and it would fit right in. Any sauce suggestions, therefore, are just that. Once you’ve got a reliable method for roasting cauliflower under your belt, you can serve it with anything you like.
That said, all the recipes I tried came with an accompaniment of sorts, from Ottolenghi’s simple dip of creme fraiche and lemon juice to Bloomfield’s intensely reduced, garlicky tomato and anchovy sauce and Shaya’s creamy whipped feta – and very nice they all were, too. I’ve given two quick versions below, one for a tomato sauce to serve with the cauliflower as a main course and one dip, in case Ottolenghi’s more casual serving suggestion appeals: “I like to serve this in the centre of the table, for people to share with drinks at the start of a meal. We break the cauliflower apart with our hands, dip the individual florets and crisp green leaves into the creme fraiche sauce and sprinkle with salt.”
Whichever you go for, Oliver’s final flourish of flaked almonds adds a welcome crunch to proceedings. Fashion is all about the accessories, after all.
1 large cauliflower, about 1kg
50g butter, softened
2 tbsp olive oil
For the sauce (optional)
2 tbsp olive oil
3 garlic cloves, crushed
4 anchovy fillets, roughly chopped (optional)
Leaves from a couple of sprigs of thyme or rosemary
1 x 400g tin of chopped tomatoes
For the dip (optional)
150g creme fraiche
75g feta or similar cheese, finely crumbled
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Trim the leaves of the cauliflower, if necessary, so the top of the white part is exposed and level the base so it sits flat. Heat the oven to 240C. Bring to the boil a large pan of water with 1 tbsp fine salt per litre dissolved in it, then lower in the cauliflower, stem-side up. Bring to the boil again and cook for eight minutes, turning once if necessary, then drain and leave to dry in a colander, florets-side down, for 10 minutes.
Beat the oil into the butter. Rub all over the cauliflower and season, then roast on a baking tray for 20 to 30 minutes until well browned, basting occasionally.
Meanwhile, if you’re making the sauce, heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan and fry the garlic and anchovies, if using, until the garlic is golden and the anchovies begin to break down. Stir in the herbs and the grated zest of the lemon, followed by the tomatoes and 2 tbsp lemon juice. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer gently for 20 minutes. Season to taste, then pour into a shallow bowl and place the cauliflower in the middle.
If you’re making the dip, stir the cheese into the creme fraiche. Finely zest in the lemon, then add a scant 1 tbsp of its juice. Top with a little olive oil and serve alongside the cauliflower when it is cool enough to handle.