Cooking With Cauliflower Doesn't Need to be Difficult

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You probably hate cauliflower, or at least think you do. I won't go so far as to blame your mom, but really, it's probably her fault. Or perhaps your elementary school's chef is the root of your hatred. "Most people's childhood experience with cauliflower is that it's really mushy and overcooked," says Laura B. Russell, recipe developer and author of Brassicas: Cooking the World’s Healthiest Vegetables. In other words: It's boiled, and boiled cauliflower is disgusting.

Why boil when cooking it right isn't hard at all? Cauliflower scaredy-cats: Try roasting. It takes 20 minutes start-to-finish to create tasty, brown, perfectly caramelized veggies. Your life may change. Don't say we didn’t warn you.

Let's back up to before you turn on the oven — all the way back to the grocery store. Russell says to look for a head that’s "dense and tightly packed. You don’t want it loose and growing apart." Unlike broccoli, you shouldn't be able to see between the cauliflower's florets. If you can, "It's probably been sitting there for quite a while. That's a bad sign," she says. You can even buy pre-cut florets if you must, but make sure there are no wet spots and the exterior is a uniform creamy white. (Same goes for picking a whole head.) And unless you’re making a soup, frozen is never an acceptable substitute. 


Cutting cauliflower doesn't have to be a challenge. Russell advises quartering the head and then using a paring knife to remove the core. From there, separating the individual florets is a simple task — aim for a size you'd actually put in your mouth. 

Remember that gross boiled cauliflower? It holds an important lesson: Water and cauliflower are rarely a good combination. That means cleaning it requires extra care. "I just go to the sink, put the whole head under the water, and rinse and brush it off with my hand," Russell says. Germaphobes could rinse the individual florets, but it’s not necessary and will get them too wet. 

"When cooking cauliflower in any water-based method, there's a tendency to overcook," Russell says. A drier heating method offers more control. That's why roasting is her "number one favorite" cooking method, followed by sautéing and steaming — as long as it's cooked quickly and the florets don’t touch the water. Absolute no-nos: Boiling (see: your childhood) and microwaving, which brings out the cruciferous vegetable’s sulfury smell. 

If you're looking for an easy side dish, the rest of the steps are simple. Pre-heat your oven to 450°F, put the florets on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Don't forget to add the crumbly bits that fell off on your cutting board, which get extra-crisp and delicious in the oven. Toss it all together and roast for 10 to 15 minutes, stirring at least once.


"That’s super-simple basic," Russell says. And if you’re looking to experiment, her favorite thing about cauliflower is its versatility. You can pair it with nearly anything, from strong flavors like mustard and olives to delicate ones like apples and cinnamon. "You can do 100 things to cauliflower that make it even more exciting," she says.

But once you try it straight out of the oven, we think you'll agree: Even on its own, cauliflower is delicious. Just keep it away from water.

 

Cauliflower with Salsa Verde

Serves 4

Cauliflower shines when paired with boldly flavored ingredients like capers, mustard, and olives. Here I combined that zesty trio with olive oil and fresh herbs in a bright salsa verde, which I spoon over simply roasted florets. You could sauté the cauliflower instead of roasting it, but slipping it in the oven for a quick roast takes the least amount of effort.

Ingredients 

  • 1 medium head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florets (about 5 cups)
  • 6 tbsp olive oil (divided)
  • 3/4 tsp kosher salt (divided)
  • 1/2 cup packed Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh chives
  • 1 tbsp drained capers, chopped
  • 1 tsp Dijon mustard
  • Grated zest of one lemon
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 Cerignola or other large green olives, pitted and coarsely chopped (about 1/3 cup)

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 450°. Put the cauliflower on a baking sheet, drizzle with 2 tbsp of the oil, sprinkle with 1/2 tsp of the salt, and toss to coat evenly, then spread in a single layer.
  2. Roast the cauliflower, stirring once or twice, for 15 minutes, until golden brown and tender but not mushy. Taste a floret for doneness; larger florets may take slightly longer to cook.
  3. Meanwhile, to make the salsa verde, in a small bowl, combine the parsley, chives, capers, mustard, lemon zest, black pepper and the remaining 1/4 tsp salt and stir to mix well. Stir in the remaining 4 tbsp olive oil and the olives. (The salsa verde can be made up to one day ahead, covered, and refrigerated until serving.)
  4. Transfer the cooked cauliflower to a serving platter and drizzle the salsa verde over the top. Serve hot or at room temperature.

(Recipe reprinted from Brassicas by Laura B. Russell (Ten Speed Press, © 2014).