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Image: Archi Banal
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KaiMay 12, 2023

Ingredient of the week: Cauliflower

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

Think cauliflower is boring? Its bewildering versatility suggests otherwise.

The cauliflower is a Brassica, and comes from the same single ancestral species as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kohlrabi, kale, and cabbages, known as “the wild cabbage” or Brassica oleracea. 

Truth be told, when I embarked on this Ingredient of the Week I was a little concerned that there wouldn’t be a whole lot to say – after all, cauliflower can be a bit… bland. An hour later I was elbow-deep in various fascinating rabbit holes about genetics and cauliflower diseases, reading academic articles with titles like “The making of cauliflowers: the story of unsuccessful flowers” – so there you go. 

The cauliflower head, often known as “curds” for its supposed likeness to cheese curds, is full of mysteries. Whereas with broccoli you’re eating flower buds (cute and romantic), with cauliflower you’re eating its inflorescence meristem, or unsuccessful flower buds. 

Cauliflowers produce these curds due to a number of recessive and mutant genes, one called the cauliflower (cal) gene. The combination of these genes causes the plant’s “inflorescence meristem” to generate copies of itself repeatedly, rather than developing into flower buds. In the words of someone who understands genetics: “The cauliflower inflorescence (the flower bearing shoot) takes a curd shape because each emerging flower primordia never fully reaches the floral stage, and repeatedly generates a novel curd-shaped inflorescence instead.”

Plates of cauliflower tacos with lime wedges and pickled red onions on a grey tablecloth.
Cauliflower tacos. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

If left long enough, cauliflowers do eventually bolt into tall stems, then produce flowers and seed pods. However, you need to leave a cauliflower head in the soil for another whole growing season before its genes remember that as well as making lovely dense curds, it also needs to reproduce. 

All this made me wonder if cauliflower has a bit of an identity problem. Who is cauliflower, really? Not only are they called “cauliflower” while being stunted in their production of flowers, but due to their natural characteristics (low-calorie, gluten-free, densely textured, bland in flavour), they’re used as a substitute for rice, mashed potatoes, pizza bases, even chicken wings and steak. 

In fact, cauliflower’s ability to take the place of other foods saw its US sales increase 71% between 2017 and 2018 alone, as more people steered away from gluten, meat, and carbs. It’s enough to make any veg doubt its sense of self. 

Note: there’s nothing (very) wrong with anthropomorphising your vegetables.

Secondary note: if you want to blow your mind, look up images of Romanesco broccoli – cauliflower’s cousin.  

Where to find cauliflower

Now, from the sublime to the ridiculous (or perhaps more accurately, the ridiculous to the rather grim): let’s look at cauliflower prices at our supermarkets. Cauliflower is in season, so they’ve certainly become more affordable recently. 

At New World, a whole cauliflower is $5.49, or $3.49 for half. Countdown cauliflowers are $4.20 each, or $3.75 for a half, and at Supie, a whole cauliflower is $4.50, or you can buy organic for $8. Happily, a Pak’nSave cauliflower is just $3.99 each or $1.99 for a half – and it’s nice to see half of something actually priced as half of something.

How to make cauliflower terrible

Mushy, waterlogged, soggy, tasteless: to avoid these words being applied to your cauliflower, only boil or steam your cauli until tender, and salt your cooking water well before boiling. Even better, try something new – there are plenty of more interesting ways to prepare a cauliflower. 

If you’re thinking of growing your own, know that cauliflowers are fussy vegetables, and difficult to grow. In a delightful if ad-infested article called “9 Cauliflower Head Disorders and How to Avoid Them”, I read a horrendous array of illnesses that can befall the “temperamental” cauliflower, including blindness, buttoning, head splitting, leaf tipburn, leafy curds, ricing and whiptail. 

An equally amusing and distressing list, I think, as many of these diseases could apply to a human, whereas others – leafy curds, whiptail, buttoning – sound like illnesses made up by Beatrix Potter. 

A bowl of roasted cauliflower pasta with flecks of fresh red chilli. The bowl is atop a blue tablecloth.
Roasted cauliflower pasta. (Image: Wyoming Paul)

How to make cauliflower amazing

If you’re ready to step away from the steamer, you’re in luck: there’s a plethora of more exciting ways to cook and eat the non flowering veg. Pickled, deep fried, grilled, and even raw; there’s aloo gobi (Indian cauli and potato curry), creamy cauliflower soup, Buffalo cauliflower “wings”, cauliflower pizza bases, and cauliflower tempura.  

Roasted cauliflower is probably my favourite method, as it lightly caramelises, sweetens and chars the vegetable to give it real depth of flavour. There are plenty of meals that use roasted cauliflower, but my absolute favourite dish, both because it’s delicious and because it’s extremely easy, is roasted cauliflower pasta with garlic, lemon zest, and chilli. 

Another classic cauli dish, particularly popular among parents whose children don’t love vegetables, is cauliflower cheese. That doesn’t mean it’s only for children, though – anyone who loves cheese (everyone) and is wanting a warming, satisfying meal can use this as a go to. Panko breadcrumbs and a hint of mustard powder can also make it feel a touch more sophisticated!

My final recommendation is crispy breadcrumbed and spiced cauliflower tacos. These ones are paired with spiced yoghurt, pickled red onion, slaw, and coriander. Not exactly authentic, but very delicious.

Wyoming Paul is the co-founder of Grossr, and runs a weekly meal plan that connects to online supermarket shopping.

Read all the previous Ingredients of the Week here.

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