The Humble Cauliflower

Cauliflower: "the garden's pale brain"

I recline on a beige vinyl examination table with needles dangling from my face.  They waggle in my peripheral vision when I twitch my lips.  Still more needles hang from the skin on my wrists, ankles, and knees. The air smells faintly medicinal, like bandages; a metronome clicks softly in the darkened room.  I am thinking about cauliflower.

“Write anything lately?” asks Dr. R, positioning a small needle gun against various points on my ear.

“No,” I say, frowning.  “It’s a terrible triangle.  If I’m cooking, I’m not reading or writing.  If I’m reading, I’m not writing or cooking.  If I’m writing…  Ugh! Do you know that I have about five essays in process right now, but none of them are going anywhere?”

He smiles, a lock of hair flopping over his eyes.  I wince when the needle gun applies pressure to an especially sensitive point on the ridge of my ear.  Dr. R dials back the needle’s intensity.  After a few more jabs, we move on to dinner plans.  “I’m going to make coq au vin with my girls,” he says.

I murmur in appreciation, trying not to move my head too much.  “As soon as I get out of here, I’m heading to buy a bottle of wine,” I say.  “Which I’m going to drink while I make a cheddar, ale, and cauliflower soup.  It’s a Bittman recipe I saw in the New York Times…”

“It’s funny that you bring up cauliflower,” he says.  “I was just thinking about a cauliflower gratin that I made once.  It’s one of Nick Stellino’s recipes.  So good!  Do you know him?”

I don’t know him, but Dr. R does a quick search for the recipe online as I recline in the dim coolness.  He prints it for me and sets it by my side as the needles do their work.  I try to relax, musing about the heroes of my kitchen; wondering how certain people rise to the level of fame that allows others to refer to them strictly by last name (Bittman, Bourdain, Pepin) or first (Julia, Mary Frances).  I’m thinking about the charge I get when I meet a fellow lover of good food, how honest and easy it is to ‘talk food’ with others.  My stomach rumbles at the prospect of a heaping mountain of hand-grated sharp cheddar (I always grate extra to compensate for the pinches I steal during preparation) and dark, nutty ale, frothing over boiled cauliflower florets.  Curiosity gets the better of me.  A needle falls from my right wrist as I reach for the recipe. Capers, garlic, rosemary, red pepper flakes, Pecorino Romano…  The recipe reads as deliciously as I imagine it will taste, though I make a mental note to double the cheese when I try to make it.


The cheddar and ale cauliflower soup marked the end of my yellow period, a bizarre month-long rash of yellow dishes.  What an incredible farewell!  My friend, Casey, and I devoured the soup in one sitting, mopping up its last vestiges from the pot with hunks of bread and leaving nothing behind but a thin film of cheese.  The hearty soup was a perfect send-off to yellow cuisine… and a warm welcome to the chill of autumn, which brings with it the opportunity to start roasting foods again.  Foods like cauliflower.

Cauliflower is a member of the diverse brassica family, which includes cabbage, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, kale, collards, rutabaga, and kohlrabi. Harold McGee writes that cauliflower is a “mass of undeveloped flower stalks,” whose development is “arrested” before they have the opportunity to flower.  (Other edible flowers include broccoli, artichokes, apples, pears, and citrus fruits, as well as numerous varieties of blossoms that are more commonly acknowledged as flowers, like roses, violets, jasmine, lilacs, and marigolds.)

I have often thought of cauliflower as an underappreciated vegetable.  My research – happily – indicates otherwise.  In 1891, Arthur Alger Crozier devoted over 200 pages to the humble head in a book called The cauliflower, just two years after James John Howard Gregory, a seed grower and distributor in Massachusetts, wrote the formidable Cabbages and Cauliflowers: How to Grow Them.  Samuel Johnson and Lorna Crozier (relation to A.A. Crozier uncertain, though potentially serendipitous) both rhapsodize the cauliflower.  Ms. Crozier writes: “The garden’s pale brain, it knows the secret lives of all the vegetables, holds their fantasies, their green libidos in its fleshy lobes.”  The ‘brain’ portion is called the curd.

Cauliflower withstands colder temperatures, making it an ideal winter vegetable.  It tastes delicious roasted or in soup.  (To prevent yellowing, try boiling it with a little bit of lemon juice or vinegar.) Cauliflower can be pureed or mashed, and served as an alternative to potatoes.  Escoffier writes of a puree that incorporates boiled, pureed cauliflower with mashed potatoes, cream, and butter.  The New Larousse Gastronomique offers several sauces, recipes, and preparations for cauliflower, as does Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The Fannie Farmer Cookbook and The Joy of Cooking contain intriguing recipes for fried cauliflower, and Curnonsky, the ‘Prince of Gastronomes,’ cites a mouth-watering gratin called Cauliflower Cheese in his Traditional French Cooking.  Cheese is a popular accompaniment for the vegetable.

The leaves of the cauliflower are also edible, though according to the Food Lover’s Companion they “take longer to cook and have a stronger flavor than the curd.”  The Splendid Table’s How to Eat Supper offers a good leaf-inclusive recipe with helpful cooking suggestions.  My preparation of choice requires no heat at all: I wash my cauliflower and dry it well, chop it into bite-size florets, salt it, and eat it raw.  If I’m feeling particularly industrious, I might make a little dip with Greek yogurt and ranch dressing.


MFK Fisher wistfully recalled the time she spent in Dijon, where “the cauliflowers were small and very succulent, grown in that ancient soil.”  Back in the States, she found she could no longer make the creamy cauliflower casseroles she created during her magical time abroad.  “I could concoct a good dish, still … but it never was so innocent, so simple … and then where was the crisp bread, where the honest wine?”

The vegetable strikes similarly wistful notes with me.  In French, cauliflower is called a chou-fleur, which literally means cabbage flower.  It is one of those sweet translations that appeal to my love of words, inseparably connected with one of my mother’s own beloved translations.  Mom used to chop off the florets and trim down the stalk, cutting away the cauliflower’s fibrous layers to reveal the little nubbin of edible stalk at its core.  She called this piece the kachun, or heart.  I’ve written about the kachun before; it will forever be the tastiest part of the cauliflower for me.  Each time I prepare a cauliflower, I make sure to savor the kachun and say a prayer for my mom, who fed me well on a steady diet of hearts.

Cauliflower Salad
(Recipe credited to my friend Kari, who credits her aunt Vicki.)

1 head iceberg lettuce, chopped well
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 medium red onion, diced
1 cup crispy crumbled bacon
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup mayonnaise with 1 packet ranch dressing mix
Black pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together.  Tastes best when shared with friends.

1 Comment

Filed under food, literature, travel

One response to “The Humble Cauliflower

  1. Mitzi

    Thanks for sharing your gift Jules!


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