Cauliflower: The ‘Brainy’ Vegetable

It’s got a stem, looks smart and tastes better.


American writer and humorist Mark Twain referred to cauliflower as “a cabbage with a college education.” I’ve wracked my wits trying to understand this quote, and all I can come up with is that a head of cauliflower looks like a brain. My grandson, Frank, whose rich Mediterranean heritage has led him to cook Brassica oleracea in Italian red sauce, includes large florets in a mélange of roasted vegetables and soaks bite-size buds with tangy dressing as a salad ingredient, concurs. As he says, it even has a stem.

Today we were talking about tabbouleh, and I could see him thoughtfully considering the head (aka “curd”) of orange cauliflower I’d just bought at Olish’s farm stand in Eastport, mentally variegating the minty salad with bright al dente bits of the heady vegetable. I wouldn’t be surprised to see tabbouleh or couscous with cauliflower on the menu in Frank’s father’s 454 Deli in Hauppauge one day soon.

Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable, in the language of growers, who may also plant its sister brassicas—cabbage, broccoli, broccoli rabe and Brussels sprouts—among their fall-harvested crops. First grown in Italy, later popularized in France and then developed in 18th-century Germany, the Snowball variety is probably the origin of the 80 American types and colors enhancing kitchens today. The Long Island Cauliflower Association, founded in 1901 to promote Long Island crops, obtains seed from the Netherlands and holds auctions to procure the highest prices; it eventually manufactured the crates used to transport produce to New York City on a special train called “The Scoot.” While prolific cauliflower and potato crops declined by mid-century, LICA continued to service Long Island farmers but expanded to encompass commercial growers and backyard gardeners by supplying seeds that run the gamut of the industry, from strawberries to corn, and included the needs of local vineyards. Their board embodies a history roster of Long Island farmers that recalls Long Island’s breadbasket heyday.

White, purple, green and orange cauliflower are equally nutritious, loaded with fiber, folate, vitamin C and all those anti-this and -thats like sulforaphane, glucosinolates, carotenoids, indole-3 and estrogen antagonists, that retard cancer cells (especially aggressive prostate cancers), enhance DNA repair and otherwise boost our health. The trick to ensuring the most nutrients from cauliflower is simple: the less or faster you cook it, the more potent its powers. In other words, don’t boil it to death! The key is to steam, microwave or stir-fry, even when you’re going to mash or puree it for soups, soufflés or substitutions.

Cauliflower is the potato of brassicas—thanks to its texture and versatility—and the go-to vegetable for those watching fats and carbs. It has almost none of either, except the ingredients you add. The flavor is delicate enough to blend with other mashed vegetables, yet distinctive on its own. Cauliflower is great mashed to mimic potatoes, especially if you mix in sour cream and chopped chives and/or crushed roasted garlic. Good for your health, with compliments to your taste buds!

In our family, the most popular preparation is to roast a whole blanched (partially cooked) head of cauliflower, coated with American cheese and buttery herbed bread crumbs. A two-tined granny fork or a sturdy wooden pick will tell you when it’s done. Give it about an hour at 350 degrees. Douse it with enough butter so you can baste it occasionally without dislodging the crumb. My mother once added cauliflower florets to mac and cheese, which she also baked with a butter-crumb topping. I’m thinking of making it later this week, as the temperature drops and I want real comfort food. I know my grandson will happily join me for supper!

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Roasted Cauliflower Florets >>

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Joan’s Cauliflower Mash >>


Joan Bernstein’s braininess comes from years of eating cauliflower.