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Recipe: Make Cauliflower and Broccoli More Compelling

 

Pan-roasted cauliflower with garlic, parsley and rosemary. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

Vegetables go in and out of style. These days, the darlings of the vegetable set tend to be cruciferous. Cauliflower is simply adored, and broccoli, a close relative, is nearly as well loved. Kale is still in vogue, as is broccolini, a hybrid cross of gai-lan and broccoli. All have a certain humble, cabbagey, shabby-chic aspect.

 

The darlings of the vegetable set tend to be cruciferous, like cauliflower. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

There is no need to settle for plain steamed cauliflower or broccoli, however. There isn’t a cruciferous vegetable that couldn’t be made more compelling with garlic, red pepper and lemon, more delectable with a bit of oil, butter or cheese.

The classic Anglo baked cauliflower, smothered in cheesy cream sauce and long cooked until completely tender, is comfort food for many, as homey as mac and cheese. I confess I like it that way too. But I am usually more inclined to head in a different direction.

 

Butter-steamed broccoli with peppery bread crumbs makes an elegant dish. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

Many vegetables are good candidates for roasting in a hot oven, lightly coated with oil, or over high heat in a skillet. Cauliflower certainly is. Roasting concentrates its flavor and sweetness, producing lovely crisp browned edges. Some cut it into medium-size florets, but my favorite way is to slice cauliflower into rough random-shaped slices a quarter- to a half-inch thick. The slices have flat surfaces for better browning, and there are always some nice crumbly bits that brown too, which add varied texture.

Roasted cauliflower slices may be seasoned simply with salt and pepper, or more complexly with a mixture of Indian spices like cumin, mustard seeds and turmeric. A more Mediterranean approach is to shower them with garlic, parsley and rosemary during the last minute or two of cooking. Cauliflower’s benign nature begs for a hit of lemon and hot pepper too.

 

Baked romanesco broccoli with mozzarella and olives. Credit Evan Sung for The New York Times

In Sicily, cauliflower comes in many colors, displayed in abundant piles at the market. You see the familiar white ones, but also a pale-green variety in Palermo, or a violet-purple kind from Catania. To confuse matters, most Sicilians call cauliflower broccoli, even though the Italian word for it is cavolfiore.

A traditional way to prepare it is baked with a topping of soft sheep’s milk cheese and black olives. It is quite a tasty combination, but some versions are somewhat underwhelming or bland. I think the addition of a little anchovy, garlic and hot pepper perks it up admirably. I use a combination of fresh cow’s milk mozzarella and pecorino cheese to stand in for the Sicilian sheep’s cheese. I also substituted romanesco broccoli — those curious-looking bright chartreuse spiky specimens — with delicious results. You may use any kind of cauliflower for this hearty dish.

The standard bushy green broccoli, the kind with one thick stem you can find everywhere, is serviceable, sturdy and long-lasting. But the fresher the broccoli, the more flavorful it is. In my experience, the organic broccoli at the supermarket (which is mainly from California) tends to be fresher and tastier than conventional. Also look for so-called sprouting broccoli, smaller and multi-stemmed, which you’ll find at farmers’ markets in temperate climates.

The way you cut the broccoli can make a difference too. Instead of chopping off large puffy florets, which often end up overcooked, try making longer thinner spears. I like to use a method called butter-steamed, which essentially means simmered in a shallow butter-and-water bath, covered, over high heat. In the process, the broccoli absorbs all the savory cooking liquid, or nearly, and takes no more than five minutes or so to cook. Broccoli steamed this way may be enhanced further with a generous application of crunchy, peppery homemade bread crumbs.

Feel free to make any of the three following recipes with cauliflower, broccoli or romanesco; they are fairly interchangeable. And, being crucifers, all are equally stylish.
NYT > Food