In culinary terms, cauliflower is often described as a blank canvas, partly because it does not taste of much on its own, but also because it is so very, very white. These days, cauliflower also comes in coloured versions: yellow, orange, purple or the pale green of the fractal-patterned romanesco variety.
But if you are buying the white stuff, it should be snow white, with no grey or brown patches or dark flecks. The florets should be dense and firm, and should not smell in the least cabbagey – past-it cauliflower will only become more sulphurous with cooking. Remember, a blank canvas is what you are after.
A blank canvas, though, can also be daunting, and you cannot just sit around staring at a cauliflower waiting for inspiration to strike. Believe me, I have tried. To save time and anguish, here are 17 delicious way to get you past your chef’s block.
Perhaps the simplest solution is to roast the cauliflower whole – take a slice off the bottom so that it will sit flat on a tray, drizzle olive oil over the top and sprinkle it, as Allegra McEvedy does, with salt, cumin and sumac. Two cauliflowers – enough for six people – will need up to an hour in the oven before a final drizzle of lemon, more oil and a scattering of chopped parsley.
Tom Hunt’s merguez-spiced cauliflower with tahini and molasses also uses a whole head. In both cases, you can bring the intact cauliflower to the table and carve it like a turkey. No one is going to call that uninspired.
I sometimes make cauliflower cheese for my wife, because it is easy and it makes her inordinately happy. To me, the old-fashioned pale simplicity of the dish smacks of privation, but I know English people get nostalgic about that sort of thing. This is the recipe I always turn to for the basic template and it is more or less foolproof. As a personal touch, I usually add a large spoonful of dijon mustard to the sauce – that way it feels less like I am cooking for a schoolroom full of orphans.
As humble as it may seem, cauliflower cheese is the sort of classic comfort food that lends itself to variation: Nigel Slater’s version – orecchiette, cauliflower, cheese – is even more comforting, with the added reassurance of pasta. Yotam Ottolenghi offers a less staid take: curried cauliflower cheese filo pie.
The cauliflower steak had its moment – or perhaps a few successive moments – a couple of years back, when it suffered from ridicule and a barrage of rolling-eye emojis. This was more to do with cost than concept: a pub chain tried charging £14 for a cauliflower steak; M&S briefly offered cauliflower cross-sections for £2.50 when you could get a whole one for 70p. That sort of pricing is bound to rub people up the wrong way – a bit like charging more for non-alcoholic gin than real gin. But that does not make cauliflower steak a bad idea. Which other veg could impersonate steak so well?
Slice your cauliflower steaks as thickly as you imagine you might like them – somewhere between 1cm and 2cm. You will end up with a lot of offcuts, which might seem extravagant, but these can be used in other recipes. Now try Thomasina Miers’ crispy cauliflower steaks with saffron escabeche: dipped in egg and polenta, fried until golden brown, then roasted for a further 15 minutes. Ottolenghi’s grilled cauliflower steaks are served with tonnato sauce and walnut salsa. These harissa cauliflower steaks are simply baked as an accompaniment to corn and courgette fritters.
Any offcuts from your cauliflower steaks are ideal for salads, in which they might feature roasted or raw or, in the case of Ottolenghi’s cauliflower, pomegranate and pistachio salad, both. He is also known to grate raw cauliflower into something roughly the texture of bulgar wheat, to make a kind of tabbouleh. In fact, raw cauliflower can stand in for all sorts of grains and pulses, depending only on the size of the holes in your grater.
For Meera Sodha’s cauliflower, beetroot and asparagus salad, the three vegetables are roasted before being tossed with parsley, mint, dill, edamame beans and almonds. Angela Hartnett’s pomegranate, orange and cauliflower salad uses boiled, cooled cauliflower. In Bryan Terry’s recipe for dirty cauliflower with tempeh and porcini salad, the cauliflower is pulsed to a grain-like size before being briefly fried and served warm.
Omar Allibhoy’s cauliflower tapa is a sort of Spanish stir-fry with garlic, vinegar and capers. This recipe makes of use of the whole cauliflower, leaves included, but you can also roast the leaves separately, with a little olive oil, salt and pepper.
Curries are another realm where the firm texture of cauliflower works well. Felicity Cloake’s perfect aloo gobi is probably the place to start. Miers’ Sri Lankan-style cauliflower curry, a heady combination of garlic, ginger, chilli, tamarind, cardamom, coconut milk, cashews, turmeric, fish sauce, fennel seeds and curry leaves, is about as far as you can get from a blank canvas. If your store cupboard is not empty when you are done with this one, you have obviously missed something out.