Coax flavor from cauliflower

Chicago TribuneOctober 17, 2012 

You consider yourself a produce 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.”

You’re missing out on 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.”

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 profile of mild vegetables.

Sosa’s 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.”

Cauliflower and Almond Puree 2 pounds cauliflower, cut into florets

1-1/2 cups whole milk

1/4 to 1/2 cup water

1 cup blanched whole almonds

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine the cauliflower, milk, water and almonds in a large saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium. Cover; simmer, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is tender, 10 minutes.

Transfer mixture to a blender or food processor, working in batches if necessary; puree. Add butter, sugar and salt; blend until smooth. Reheat if necessary before serving. Cauliflower with Ginger, Garlic and Green Chilies

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds

1/2 teaspoon yellow mustard seeds

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely sliced

4 cups cauliflower florets

1-3 green chilies, or to taste

3/4 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon garam masala (or curry powder)

1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper

Black pepper

1/4 cup water, for cooking

Heat vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and yellow mustard seeds. As soon as seeds begin to pop (a few seconds), add chopped garlic, the peeled fresh ginger; the cauliflower florets; and hot green chilies. Stir-fry until cauliflower is lightly browned, 5-7 minutes. Add salt, garam masala, cayenne pepper and freshly ground black pepper to taste; gently toss with the florets. Add water; cover wok and cook 2 minutes.

Prep time: 20 minutes / Cook time: 15 minutes Adapted from chef Angelo Sosa’s “Flavor Exposed” Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s “Quick & Easy Indian Cooking”

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