Cauliflower’s moment in the sun as a food fad came to an abrupt halt a few years ago when someone sliced it crosswise and called it a cauliflower steak.
Cauliflower is not a steak. There is nothing steak-like about cauliflower. And while we’re at it, you know those cauliflower-based pizza crusts that they say don’t taste like cauliflower? They taste like cauliflower.
That said, I love cauliflower, except in its steak and pizza applications.
One friend of mine calls cauliflower the tofu of vegetables, because it soaks up and takes on the flavor of anything it is with. And that is true when it is served with a cheesy or spicy sauce. But when it is served by itself, unadorned, it has a mildly nutty flavor all its own.
To sample the many different aspects of cauliflower, I made it four ways. One was in a highly flavorful chilled salad, one was a traditional Indian presentation and one was in an amazing savory pie.
All three of those took some time and effort to make, with terrific results. But the fourth way could not have been simpler; it is the method that, to me, allows the pure, warm flavor of cauliflower to come through.
I roasted it. All I needed was a little olive oil, a sprinkling of salt, a dash of pepper and an oven.
The result was basic, elemental cauliflower, cauliflower at its most essential. It was perfection, and you can’t improve on perfection.
But I tried. And if anything can be more perfect than perfect, it is a savory cauliflower cheese pie with grated potato crust. This dish is absolutely stellar.
The recipe comes from the “Moosewood Cookbook,” which is sort of the bible for vegetarians.
I have made many dishes from this book over the years, but the Cauliflower Cheese Pie may be my new favorite.
The crust is basically a potato pancake baked in a pie pan: grated potatoes, grated onions and an egg white. Once that is essentially parbaked, you add a layer of shredded cheddar cheese (I used sharp cheese, which I would recommend), then a layer of thyme-scented, sautéed cauliflower and onions, and then another layer of shredded cheese.
Pour in a simple custard of eggs and a little milk, bake, and you end up with a dish that will make even the most fervent carnivore say, “maybe these Moosewood people are on to something.”
The Indian dish that I made was very nearly as great as the pie. It was a gobi aloo, although you will more often find it called an aloo gobi. Either way, it is a traditional dish that combines cauliflower (gobi) with potatoes (aloo).
This version was originally meant to be served for special occasions such as banquets, but it is surprisingly easier and much quicker to make than most other Indian dishes.
The cauliflower and potatoes are pan-fried in oil, which is then flavored with onions and ginger. Grated tomatoes are added, along with cayenne pepper, turmeric, ground coriander, cumin and salt. It is all cooked together for a few minutes, and then you add garam masala at the end.
How good is it? I brought it out to my colleagues with all the other dishes, including the pie and the roasted cauliflower, and it was the first to go.
Finally, I made a wonderful marinated chickpea and cauliflower salad. This dish benefits from extended marination — at least four hours and up to three days. I marinated mine overnight. That was enough to smooth the flavors together, and yet still have a fresh, bright taste.
The brightness comes from sherry vinegar, which always makes whatever you use it in taste better. The vinegar is mixed with an extraordinary amount of olive oil (but it’s just used in the marinade; you’ll end up eating little of it), garlic, sugar, rosemary, thinly sliced lemon and smoked paprika.
And then comes the secret, a pinch of saffron. You can only taste it if you know it is there, but its heady aroma adds a perfect note to the garlic, the paprika, the chickpeas and of course the cauliflower.
The cauliflower soaks up the flavor like tofu.