Cauliflower is the new Brussels sprouts

Special to The Washington PostNovember 6, 2013 

If you dine out frequently, you might find that a chef’s influence on what you eat extends beyond the restaurant. As evidence, I pose this question: Have mussels, charcuterie or flatbreads found their way onto your dining room table over the past year or two?

The truth is, chefs get bored easily and are always looking for an ingredient, whether never-heard-of or resurrected, that will become the next big thing that diners will revere and their peers will emulate. Even the side dish section of the menu, for years a rote addendum of asparagus, haricots verts and creamed spinach, is part of a trending phenomenon. If you don’t think so, I have seven words for you: maple-glazed Brussels sprouts with applewood bacon.

If indications on restaurant menus all over Washington are accurate, cauliflower may well be the new Brussels sprouts.

I admit to a bit of bias. I adore Brussels sprouts, but I find cauliflower to be a much more visibly alluring vegetable, with its bold globes of cream-white curds and nests of vibrant greenery.

Those stocky outer leaves protect the head from sunlight, impeding chlorophyll development and accounting for the vegetable’s color. Its nutritional characteristics are appealing — low in fats and carbs, high in Vitamin C and a source of potassium, folate, Vitamin B6, fiber and protein — and you can do just about anything to cauliflower in addition to eating it raw, including grating it for “risotto,” as some chefs do.

“I like that it is so versatile,” says Mike Isabella. “It can take the lead in a dish or highlight another ingredient. It can have the most subtle profile, such as a puree to go with lobster, or even be the centerpiece of a sandwich.”

At his recently opened G sandwich emporium in D.C., the chef features a sandwich that has earned its own buzz. Isabella stuffs a sesame hoagie roll with al dente pieces of roasted cauliflower, charred scallions, fresh herbs (dill, mint, parsley), shishito peppers and pickled shallots. The sandwich is dressed with lemon paprika vinaigrette and a house-made romesco sauce.

Roasting cauliflower is a preferred method among food pros, for good reason. It rids the vegetable of much of its water, concentrates its flavor and adds the extra dimension of caramelization. Christophe Poteaux at Bastille in Old Town Alexandria, Va., tosses oven-roasted florets with capers, dates, olives, piquillo peppers and fresh oregano.

At Isabella’s D.C. eatery, Graffiato, cauliflower straight from the wood oven is finished with lemon juice, pecorino Romano cheese, shaved red onion and mint. Nearby, at Bibiana, Nick Stefanelli roasts baby cauliflower whole and garnishes it with black olives, golden raisins and pine nuts for his vegetarian tasting menu. And in between the two, Del Campo chef Victor Albisu chars cauliflower in a cast-iron skillet, blasts it in a wood-fired oven and serves it with a garlicky, boldly flavored salsa verde.

In a more complex treatment, chef Jerry Hollinger at the Daily Dish in Silver Spring, Md., builds a terrine by suspending sweet potato-goat cheese puree between two layers of poached cauliflower, one made with the green variety, the other with purple. The tricolor slices make a stunning presentation.

In D.C., Aaron McCloud of Cedar Restaurant and Bart Vandaele of B Too make versions of risotto, grating cauliflower into rice-size pieces and cooking them as you would the Italian rice classic. The dish, finished with butter, cheese and cream, takes on the texture of starchy arborio rice slowly cooked with wine and broth in the traditional method — minus the carbs that rice imparts.

Cauliflower has not escaped the chef’s penchant for deep-frying. At Proof, Haidar Karoum mimics a dish he grew up with. His dad used to fry florets and serve the golden brown nuggets at family events with a tahini, lemon and garlic sauce.

“It’s great for parties,” Karoum says, “because it’s a dish that actually gets better as it sits out, not worse.”

Inspired by those chefs, I embarked on my own cauliflower experimentation, soon malodorously evident throughout the house.

“A lot of people associate cauliflower with a nasty thing that smells like a fart,” notes chef McCloud, “and so it is an underutilized vegetable. For me, either you go all the way and cook it for a long time, or cook it a little so it maintains a nice crispiness. Otherwise, you lose the integrity of the vegetable.”

As to the odor, he says, you just have to work through it, but I found that lighting two kinds of aromatic candles (wood smoke and amber; sea salt and bay rum) mitigated the problem pleasantly.

I started off making the risotto, adjusting ingredients and incorporating parts of McCloud’s and Vandaele’s methods, such as using the Manchego cheese recommended by the former and folding in unsweetened whipped cream at the end per the latter.

I can’t say that if my eyes were closed I would mistake the dish for the real thing, but the playful riff is satisfying in its own right.

I devised an easy way to oven-roast florets and get a nice, even color on them by finishing them under the broiler. The browned pieces, mixed with garlic, a pinch of nutmeg, heavy cream and Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, baked into a bubbly brown gratin. Aside from not watering down the cream, roasting the cauliflower made the dish more intense and therefore interesting. I could have eaten it as a main course with a lightly dressed salad.

For another side dish, I paired roasted florets with brown butter, cured black olives, lemon zest and golden raisins, a riff on the Bibiana preparation. That would also have made a perfect relish topping for, say, grilled swordfish.

I also found that sauteing the florets in a few tablespoons of oil and stirring them frequently over medium heat for 15 minutes creates a pan-roasted affect. Adding loads of sliced garlic and freshly ground black pepper, minced ginger, curry powder, peas and sliced serrano pepper transforms the florets into a zesty interpretation of the Indian dish gobi (cauliflower) matar (peas) that’s served at the Bombay Club near the White House.

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