What's not to love about cauliflower? This question may sound facetious -- cauliflower has such a terrible reputation among picky children and vegetable haters that you'd think it was arsenic -- but it's not. Cauliflower is the perfect vegetable, as far as I'm concerned: appealing in flavor and texture, an all-around winner.
The Cauliflower Family
Cauliflower is related rather obviously to broccoli, but it's less stringy, less flowery, and starchier, almost potato-like. In recent years, different varieties of cauliflower have become more widely available, including broccoflower and Romanesco (both are bright green and have a flavor and mouth feel somewhere in between broccoli and cauliflower) and genetically engineered orange and purple varieties (which are intriguing and fun enough to entice those picky children).
How to Choose and Store Cauliflower
No matter the color, look for evenly hued, heavy, firm cauliflower, preferably with protective leaves still wrapped around the flower. Gray and brown spots are best avoided, but if you see a few, you can always cut them off before cooking. Cauliflower, like other members of the cabbage family, lasts a little longer than tender vegetables; you can keep it in plastic wrap in the refrigerator for about a week before using it.
Ways to Cook Cauliflower
I find that the easiest way to prepare cauliflower is to steam it whole: Just pull off the leaves, put it in a steamer above a couple of inches of salted water, cover, and turn the heat to high. Depending on how big it is, cauliflower will take anywhere from 12 to 25 minutes to get tender enough to pierce to the heart with a thin knife. (If you're in a hurry, core the cauliflower and break it into individual florets; they'll cook in less than 10 minutes.) You can adjust the cooking time at your discretion -- some people like their cauliflower fairly crisp; some like it mushy -- but keep in mind that it will retain heat after you remove it from the pot, so stop cooking a little before it's as soft as you like it. But no worries if you overdo it a little -- cauliflower is more forgiving of overcooking than other cruciferous vegetables.
Ways to Serve Cauliflower
Once you have a whole cooked cauliflower on hand, you've got options. One of the most crowd-pleasing ways to serve cauliflower is to mash it like potatoes: Overcook the cauliflower slightly (it should offer no resistance to a thin blade), break it up a bit, warm about a cup of milk or cream and a couple of tablespoons of butter in a pot, add the cauliflower, and mash. (Grated cheese and a tiny pinch of nutmeg are optional but obviously fabulous; salt and lots of black pepper are mandatory.)
You can also keep cooked cauliflower in your refrigerator and snack on it little by little by pulling off florets and dipping them in seasoned olive oil, hummus, pesto, whatever. For something a little more formal (and more like a meal), reheat those florets in olive oil made aromatic by the addition of anchovies and garlic: fast, flavorful, wonderful.
Or sauté chopped uncooked cauliflower and add spices, tomato, and stock for a warming vegetarian soup that will convince any cauliflower skeptic of the vegetable's virtues. And if you're afraid someone will balk? Just purée the soup and don't tell them what's in it until afterwards. Everybody wins: you, your guests, the cauliflower.