Cauliflower steaks, anyone? How the humble cauli got hip

Long scorned as a sulphurous, soggy disappointment, the brassica is being rediscovered, with leading chefs finding exciting ways to bring out its meaty glory

Historically, when eating out, it was rare that anything involving cauliflower would stick in your memory. But there is no forgetting the remarkable whole fried cauliflower that is currently being served at Ambleside’s Lake Road Kitchen.

A key dish on the restaurant’s tasting menu, it looks less like a cauliflower and more like a blackened asteroid that has crash-landed through the kitchen ceiling. Were that not dramatic enough, it arrives with a large, wooden-handled knife so that you can carve open its contrasting white curds, which are served with pressed Scandinavian viili yoghurt and citrusy threads of pine. The flavour is incredible.

The cauliflower is cooked whole in a tight pan so that it first steams as water is driven off and then, as the butter foams up, it effectively deep-fries, so that its exterior develops unusually meaty, caramelised flavours. The leaves, in particular, are transformed into awesome crispy shards: rich, salty, deeply savoury, like vegetarian crackling.

A cauliflower
Cauliflower sales have been in steep decline, but, roasted, fried or baked, it is now a rising star in many restaurants. Photograph: Alamy

“The challenge was to give a vegetarian that satisfying, meaty sensation a carnivore gets when they eat a piece of perfectly cooked meat,” says chef-owner James Cross. “We wanted that salinity you get around the outside of a well-seasoned steak and the contrast between the crust and that delicious creamy, tender curd texture you get inside a cauliflower. You can cut steaks from a cauliflower, but, for me, it’s all about showcasing the cauliflower in a hearty, generous way. Putting the whole thing down in front of guests has as much impact as an 800g côte de boeuf would.”

As a dish, that cauli symbolises a remarkable change in this humble brassica’s fortunes. From 2000 to 2010, cauliflower sales plummeted by 35% as this sulphurous culprit, featuring mostly in endless, soggy Sunday roasts, was shunned by young shoppers. Today, cauliflower could not be hipper. It is the cover-star of April’s Olive Magazine and many restaurants are elevating it to a centrepiece ingredient. It is, for instance, served roasted with lobster butter at the two-Michelin star Ledbury or dressed with romesco sauce at Ox Club in Leeds. Berber & Q’s whole barbecued cauliflower, dusted with shawarma spices and slathered in pine nuts and tahini sauce, is a cult classic among London foodies. Something similar is happening in the US too, where New York’s Aldo Sohm serves a baked cauliflower with roast chicken salt and New Orleans’ Domenica famously pairs it with whipped goat’s cheese.

At the same time, cauliflower has been embraced by the Deliciously Ella brigade as a low-carb, wheat-free, low GI, paleo-friendly food. It contains just 23 calories and 4g of carbs per 100g and it can be fashioned into grilled steaks, couscous, rice and even “flour” to use in ersatz pizza bases. After crowdfunding £700,000, a long-life, quick-cook Cauli Rice product was recently launched in UK supermarkets and, after years of decline and stagnation, overall UK cauliflower sales are up by 4%. “It’s trending [in restaurants] and in America, so there’s some cross-pollination,” says Richard Mowbray, vice-chair of the Brassica Growers Association. “It’s on the back of it being a healthy thing, too. People who want a low-calorie alternative to rice are looking at cauliflower.”

The cauli’s flexibility is old news to Britain’s best chefs. Last year in G2, Neil Rankin featured whole “dirty” cauliflower cooked straight on chemical-free barbecue coals. Two years ago, the Dairy’s Robin Gill was extolling its virtues in magazine interviews. “If you roast it for a long time, it can go very sweet; raw it’s quite nutty. It’s so diverse,” he told me in 2014. Meanwhile, independently of one another, two Israelis, Yotam Ottolenghi and the celebrity chef Eyal Shani, have played a significant role in repopularising the cauliflower. In 2009, Ottolenghi pleaded its case on an edition of Radio 4’s The Food Programme and he has kept up his campaign ever since. Likewise, Shani has served whole, wood-roasted cauliflowers in his restaurants in Tel Aviv and Paris for a decade. In a recent Haaretz newspaper article (How an Israeli chef’s cauliflower recipe took over the world), Shani was credited with inspiring the current whole-roasted cauli trend and, if indirectly, Alon Shaya’s version at Domenica.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasted cauliflower gigli with pine nuts and currants
Yotam Ottolenghi’s roasted cauliflower gigli with pine nuts and currants. Photograph: Colin Campbell for the Guardian

In truth, cooking cauliflowers whole is commonplace in the Middle East (as Shani told Haaretz, he got the idea from his business partner’s mum). Stosie Madi, chef-owner at Lancashire’s Parkers Arms, grew up in West Africa where her Lebanese father and his Maronite Christian family instilled in her a deep respect for cauliflower. Friday lunchtimes invariably featured deep-fried cauliflower with fish and, during Lent, it became a main-course dish in itself.

Madi’s mother would fry off crumbled cauliflower in butter (“The secret is the butter. If you’re frugal with it, you don’t get that meaty taste”), and then layer that with rice and caramelised onions in a kind of pilaf. She would also simultaneously roast (quickly at a high heat, so it remains firm) a butter, cumin and sea salt-smothered cauliflower, to serve in lieu of meat: “Cauliflower is very sweet and has lovely dark caramel notes when you roast it.”

It is a dish that Madi herself serves at the Parkers Arms with rice and toasted nuts. The dish is dressed, in a classic Lebanese move, with za’atar spices and a tahini-based lemon and garlic tarator sauce. “It takes prime place on the menu and we have non-vegetarians coming back specifically for it,” she says. “You have to take something satisfying that packs a punch and celebrate that vegetable as you would a joint of meat for a Sunday roast.”

The cauliflower, it seems, is uniquely well placed to step into that meaty breach. More broadly, it is shrugging off its rep as a mushy chore and demonstrating its versatility. You may never eat cauliflower cheese again.


Tony Naylor

The GuardianTramp

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