Move over courgetti, cauliflowers are the new cool
Our reporter looks at how the humble cauliflower went from being the Cinderella of the veg patch to the star of the show
Published 18/05/2016 | 02:30
Back in 2009, when food writer Sophie Grigson wrote in The Vegetable Bible about cauliflower, she mused: "I doubt I will ever convince anyone that it is a vegetable of rare distinction. Cauliflower is a handsome vegetable… but no glamour-puss." Its reputation, she granted, is not helped by the fact that - when over-cooked and less than fresh - cauliflower becomes a soggy, stinky mess.
Fast forward seven years and cauliflower has become the pin-up vegetable du jour. 'What's hot' food trend lists regularly proclaim it 'the new kale'. Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram feeds are full of it, thanks to an influential breed of food bloggers and writers who love to look as good as their food does.
Now everyone seems to be transforming this Cinderella of vegetables into all sorts of substitutes for starchy carbohydrates: pizza bases and sandwich 'bread', risotto and fried rice-style dishes, hash browns and pakoras. Last February, a Wall Street Journal headline exclaimed that cauliflower shortages were causing "Panic Among Dieters".
But cauliflower is more than an easy way of reducing carb intake and upping your five a day. It has also won over many influential fans for its extraordinary versatility in the kitchen in terms of both the diversity of textures it can produce and its suitability as a vehicle for big flavours.
High-end food magazines like Bon Appetit are describing this once-maligned cruciferous vegetable (a talking-terms relative of broccoli, cabbage and kale) as "pretty frickin' awesome" and unleashing dozens of cauli-tastic recipes at a time to convert readers to this new holy grail of ingredients.
All of which is in stark contrast to the late 90s to late noughties decade that saw British cauliflower production decrease a third due to lack of demand. So what happened that cauliflower went from zero to hero in such a short space of time?
London-based, Israeli-born chef and food writer Yotam Ottolenghi has a lot to answer for, as does the TV chef and prolific food writer of River Cottage fame, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall.
At the time that Grigson was lamenting that cauliflower would never get its moment in the sun, Fearnley Whittingstall was predicting its renaissance, claiming that "it stands up to a lot of adventure".
He recommended serving it carpaccio-style, sliced very thinly and dressed with a mustardy vinaigrette or in a creamy soup fragranced with luxurious truffles.
That same year Ottolenghi dedicated a half-hour Food Programme show on BBC Radio 4 to an appeal for the "wonderfully versatile" cauliflower, which he felt was unjustifiably losing its popularity.
"I know that there's nothing obviously sexy about cauliflower to warrant star status," he wrote in his influential 2010 cookbook, Plenty.
"In fact, it seems - on the face of it - somehow dull and dreary. But… it is one of those singular vegetables, like potato or aubergine, that can take on big flavours without losing its own unique character."
Plenty features two cauliflower recipes, including one of the most moreish frittatas you can have the pleasure of eating, thanks to the addition of smoked paprika and smoked scamorza cheese. And over the coming years, Ottolenghi recipes would suggest everything from cumin-spiced cauliflower fritters with lime-spiked Greek yogurt and herby cauliflower cake to roasted cauli florets with dates and capers or deep-fried florets with a tahini sauce.
It was in 2012 that the tide really turned for this un-sung veg. Ottolenghi's Jerusalem cookbook unleashed his glorious recipe for a roasted cauliflower, celery and hazelnut salad seasoned with pomegranate seeds, parsley, cinnamon and allspice.
LA-based chef Jason Neroni gave the world the veggie-heaven concept of treating thick cauliflower steaks just like a T-bone. Chef Amanda Cohen of New York's vegetarian mecca released her comic-inspired Dirt Candy Cookbook, recasting veg such as cauliflower as superheroes.
Recipes for whole-roast tandoori cauliflower began to pop up on blogs, and Trip Advisor reviews for Israeli chef Eyal Shani's whole roast cauliflower signalled the arrival of what has since become a modern-Israeli classic.
Once the Hemsley sisters (British lifestyle gurus, Jasmine and Melissa Hemsley) revealed in Vogue that cauliflower can be successfully grated into small rice-like crumbs, steamed and served as a rice substitute, there was no turning back.
"Cauliflower contains several beneficial phytochemicals and especially high level of vitamins C," they wrote, and were followed by a torrent of cancer-busting and other health-promoting claims on behalf of cauliflower by bright young foodies the world over.
Last year, Ottolenghi announced his retirement from his personal 'pro-cauli' campaign, writing that "it finally looks as if the cauliflower battle is won".
Which is not to say that we're seeing the end of the pin-up veg of the decade. This Cinderella is digging her heels in and staying at the ball.