Veg to Table: Cauliflower

Illustration: Ellen Blanc

We’re nearing the end of the year, and as such we’re also coming towards the end of this project, which takes its penultimate bow with cauliflower, the mild brassica that also comes in vibrant hues of purple, green and orange — not forgetting romanesco with its brilliant fractal florets.

Whatever variety you’re using, you’ll find cauliflower is a versatile number, which loves salty, fresh and spicy things as much as it embraces creamy, cheesy flavours. But it’s also something that has enough substance to serve as a stand-in for other food types; admittedly I’ve never felt the need to style one into ‘rice’ or some sort of pseudo pizza base, but I appreciate carbohydrates aren’t always everyone’s friends, and for this purpose it does very well indeed.

Cauliflower and potato salad with dill, lemon and caper butter, toasted walnuts and deep-fried shallots

That said, I often take advantage of using cauliflower as a replacement for meat, giving bulk and body to dishes where animals are often relied on to do so. Roast one whole as a vegetarian centrepiece or as an alternative for Sunday lunch, bake in a cheesy sauce for ultimate childhood nostalgia, put some through your mac and cheese to up the vitamin ante — it’s a vegetable that can hold its own, meaning it deserves so much more than being relegated to the side of the plate.

Cauliflower Vada Pav

Vada pav is the name of a street food dish from Mumbai, which is essentially a deep-fried ball of spiced mashed potato (that’s the vada part) served in a bread bun (that’s the pav), piled up with tangy chutney and fresh coriander. I first had one at Bundobust, a vegetarian small plates restaurant in Manchester, where it’s become something of a showstopper. In honesty, it’s not something I always order myself anymore, but this is more reflective of the strength of other dishes than anything else — although it remains an idea I absolutely love.

You can check out a recipe for vada pav via Manali Singh (Cook With Manali), whose version is made up of four main parts: the vada, a dry garlic coconut chutney, green chutney and a sweet tamarind chutney. Meera Sodha also has a great vegan recipe with a coriander and peanut chutney here.

I’ve made a variation that incorporates cauliflower to add a bit of texture and flavour, and also involves shallow frying and baking over deep-frying — which is something I find far too demanding in a domestic setting. Please know, however, that my version below is by no means traditional, and merely a take on a concept I think is a fantastic way of making vegetables filling, exciting and stretch a long way.

Serves 4

400g cauliflower florets
1 large potato (approx 350g), peeled and chopped
½ an onion, chopped
1tsp ginger
1tsp garlic
1tsp coriander
1tsp cumin
½tsp chilli flakes
1tsp fennel seeds
1tsp fenugreek leaves
1 egg
Plain or gram flour to dust (or follow Sodha’s recipe by making a batter with gram flour, 150g gram flour, ⅓ tsp baking powder and 165ml water)

For the Date and Tamarind Chutney:

50g dates
100ml boiling water
1tsp tamarind paste

To serve:

4 x burger buns or bread rolls (or 8 x smaller rolls)
4 tbsp wholegrain mustard
Cucumber, thinly sliced
Coriander, chopped

Boil the potato until cooked, before draining and moving to a large bowl to mash up. Leave to cool.

Next, fry the onion until soft and add the cauliflower florets, throwing in the ginger, chopped garlic, coriander, cumin, chilli flakes, fennel seeds and fenugreek leaves. Fry everything for around 15 minutes or until the cauliflower is well cooked — carefully adding splashes of water if it begins to stick. When cooked, leave to cool before stirring the cauliflower mix through the potato with 1 beaten egg, mashing everything up together.

Shape into thick patties the shape of a slightly flattened small cricket ball. At this stage, you can then either dust in flour and leave to chill in fridge for half an hour, or, if you want to take the more traditional route, leave them to chill while you make a batter — mixing the flour and baking powder and adding the water gradually until it’s a thick but pourable consistency.

If you’ve gone for the first approach, you can then shallow fry the patties in oil and bake in an 180°C oven for another 20 minutes. If you’re taking the traditional method, coat each patty in the batter and either deep fry or — as Sodha does, fry in 3cm of oil set over a low to medium heat. (She advises you to test by dripping in a bit of batter first).

As they cook, make the chutney by soaking the dates in the boiling water for 10 minutes and blitzing up with the tamarind paste.

To serve, spread wholegrain mustard on one side of each toasted bun, and top this with the potato and cauliflower patty, followed by fresh coriander and thinly-sliced cucumber. Spread the date and tamarind chutney onto the other half of the bun and place it on top.

Sicilian Cauliflower Salad

This is the dish that most of my cauliflowers seem destined for, as it cleverly combines store cupboard ingredients to create something that’s easy to whip up while providing deep, sunny Mediterranean comfort. It sits as perfectly on the table at a barbeque as it does alongside a roast dinner, and won’t involve several trips to the shops to gather everything.

I usually make mine by roasting cauliflower florets and leaves in olive oil, salt, pepper and oregano, before stirring through toasted pine nuts, capers, raisins or sultanas, lemon zest and juice, a splash of red wine vinegar and heaps of parsley — sometimes a few anchovies or tinned sardines thrown in for good measure.

The sultanas here were steeped in vermouth before serving

Nigella Lawson also has a great version in Nigellissima that incorporates saffron, marsala-soaked golden raisins and black olives, or you can find a similar recipe via the Delicious website:

Gratin de Choufleur avec une Chapelure aux Noisette (Cauliflower Bake with Hazelnut Crunch Crust)

There’s often no reason to mess with the classics — especially if it’s my mum’s cauliflower cheese, which has always brought me nothing but comfort in its beige, unadulterated form. Rachel Khoo’s Gallicised recipe in The Little Paris Kitchen, however, is a welcome twist on tradition, as she tops her cauliflower gratin with a crunchy hazelnut crust. She also infuses her bechamel with a bay leaf, which is a technique that finally helped me truly understand the herb; I’d always assumed it was superfluous, but by using it in a white sauce, I was suddenly very aware of the uniquely savoury flavour that was missing before. I now never cook without them.

Khoo also has recipes online for cauliflower cheese burgers and a cauliflower and caraway salad.

Cauliflower Mac and Cheese

Similarly, Jamie Oliver combines cauliflower cheese with macaroni cheese to bring two comforting old favourites together under the roof of one dish. The recipe I’ve used before is in 30 Minute Meals, but he’s got similar variations on the theme online with the Merry Mac ’n’ Cauliflower Cheese and the Cauliflower Mac ’n’ Cheese with Crispy Garlic Breadcrumbs.

Creamy Cauliflower Pasta

Alison Roman’s recipe videos for New York Times came as a great source of comfort to me during lockdown, when I’d leave her chattering away from her old apartment in New York as a soothing form of distraction from all the doom and gloom. While she’s now got her own series called Home Movies, I often still revisit her previous clips for inspiration — including this ‘vegetable-forward version of macaroni and cheese’ which pairs ‘equal parts’ of cauliflower and pasta.

“A whole head of cauliflower browns and caramelizes in a skillet before being simmered with heavy cream, pecorino cheese and a bit of lemon zest, breaking down into a special (and yes, decadent) sauce to coat the pasta shape of your choosing,” Roman writes on the NYT website.

“For those looking to make it their own, this pasta could absolutely handle a bit of chopped bacon sautéed with the cauliflower, or handfuls of leafy greens tossed in at the end to wilt. Whatever you do, do not skip the bread crumbs — they are a not-so-stealthy vehicle for more cheese, and also add much-needed texture to the finished dish.”

Whole Roasted Cauliflower

I love roasting a cauliflower whole, as it mimics the grandeur of a slab of meat in the middle of the table. I usually follow Felicity Cloake’s approach (below) which involves plunging the cauliflower into a pan of boiling water for 10 minutes before popping into the oven. Cloake simply rubs hers in butter and oil before making a separate sauce, but I quite like making a paste out of harissa and almonds — bashed up in a pestle and mortar — and smearing that over before roasting.

Cauliflower Schnitzels

I really love the idea of these cauliflower schnitzels from Delicious, which are a bit of a step up from a cauliflower ‘steak’ — thanks in part to the paprika-spiked crispy crumb in which they’re coated, but also the creamy sage sauce to accompany them.

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Journalist currently working at LADbible, with previous experience at Time Out, The Skinny and others.

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Jess Hardiman

Jess Hardiman

Journalist currently working at LADbible, with previous experience at Time Out, The Skinny and others.

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