Ways with cauliflower


I was on the phone with a friend the other day when there was the unmistakable sound in the background of hungry children crashing through the front door. “Oh no, all I’ve got is cauliflower,” she said. I pictured her peering disconsolately into the fridge. “What can I do with that except cauliflower cheese?”

The question threw me at first. I can’t stand creamy cheesy sauces, which is why I find Italian food with its emphasis on vegetables so much more palatable than French cuisine. Cauliflower cheese, therefore, would never have occurred to me.

But I do love cauliflower in many guises, some of which are described below. The classic Italian way of dealing with this vegetable is to boil it (I replace this with my trusty steamer: I don’t like my veg touching water) and toss it in olive oil, to be eaten hot or cold. To this I usually add finely minced parsley and/or chives.

Each of the suggestions below presupposes one medium-sized cauliflower.

Cavolfiore ripassato
Garlic – 2 cloves
Fresh chili – to taste
Olive oil
This is a pan-Italian standby, and a method used for many vegetables. Cut the cauliflower into smallish florets, then steam it. Most Italians will cook it until it’s very soft; I prefer a tiny crunch at the heart of mine. Just cover the bottom of a heavy frying pan with oil, and gently cook the roughly chopped or squashed garlic and a piece of fresh chilli. When the garlic is just beginning to take colour, drop the cooked cauliflower in and toss it over a medium heat for five minutes or so.

Cauliflower with anchovy dressing
Anchovy fillets in oil – 10-12
Garlic – 2 cloves
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Cut the cauliflower into smallish florets and steam it until almost soft. While it’s cooking, put the crushed garlic and chopped anchovies into a mortar, and add a little oil. Crush this mixture hard until it forms a lumpy paste, adding more oil as you do so. When the cauliflower is cooked, turn it into a bowl and toss it in the garlic and anchovy dressing. You can make the dressing even more pungent by beating in the juice of a quarter of a lemon, two teaspoons of French mustard and/or some roughly chopped capers before pouring it over the cauliflower. Serve lukewarm.

Simple wok cauliflower
Garlic – 2 cloves
Fresh ginger – optional
Fresh chilli – optional
Soya sauce – optional
Olive oil
Break the florets off the cauliflower carefully and, with a very sharp knife, cut each into fine – max 2mm thick – slices. You should cut them in the direction of the stems, the end result of which will be a big pile of cauliflower crumbs and a few very beautiful larger pieces shaped like miniature versions of mature oak trees, with thick trunk and spreading foliage – very pretty! Pour a tablespoon or so of oil into your heated wok and toss in the garlic, which should be sliced very thinly, along the length of the clove (if you wish you can also add a small piece of fresh chilli): allow the garlic to go pale brown and crispy but not burnt, then throw in the cauliflower. At this point you may need to add a little more oil. Toss the vegetable over a high heat. If some edges catch slightly and turn brown, this adds to the flavour, though of course you don’t want charred cauliflower. Add more oil if it looks like things are getting too dry. It should take about ten minutes to get the cauliflower to the desired cooked-but-firm consistency. If you wish, you can splash a little soya sauce over the contents of the wok a minute before it’s ready. If you’re a ginger lover, try adding some peeled, thinly sliced pieces with the garlic at the beginning.

Cauliflower, red cabbage and pepper
Red pepper – 1 large
Red cabbage – 1/4
Garlic – 2 cloves
Fresh ginger – 2 cm cube
Fresh chilli – to taste
Soya sauce – 1 tbsp
Olive oil
Slice the cauliflower (half a medium-sized cauliflower should do in this case) as described above. Remove the stalk end and seeds from the pepper and slice it into thin rings. Take one quarter of a large-ish red cabbage and slice it into very thin strips. Finely chop the garlic and ginger, and tear up the chilli. Heat a tablespoon of oil in a wok and gently fry one third each of the garlic and ginger. When they’re beginning to take colour, add the cauliflower and toss it over a high heat for six or seven minutes, adding more oil if necessary. Remove the cauliflower from the wok with a slotted spoon, set it aside and repeat this process with the peppers (about five minutes), then with the cabbage (five minutes). Now place everything back in the wok together and continue cooking, adding oil if necessary. Mix the soya sauce with two tablespoons of water. When the vegetables are well blended, pour the soya sauce over them and continue cooking, tossing until the liquid evaporates – about five minutes.

© Anne Hanley, 2012


About Gardens, Food & Umbria

I am a garden designer, working throughout central Italy. I have lived in Italy for over 30 years – for many years in Rome but now in the wilds of Umbria where I have fixed up one wreck of a house, am working on another, and tinker endlessly with two and a half hectares of land, some of which is my garden.
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