Cauli good show

For years, the British have condemned the cauliflower to a cheesey fate. Now Mark Hix liberates this exotic veg
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Indy Lifestyle Online

If you go down to Cornwall at this time of year you'll see acres of flowers being harvested. The beautiful, bright white-headed blooms are firm and not known for their fragrance. They're destined for greengrocers and supermarkets all over. They are, of course, cauliflowers.

If you go down to Cornwall at this time of year you'll see acres of flowers being harvested. The beautiful, bright white-headed blooms are firm and not known for their fragrance. They're destined for greengrocers and supermarkets all over. They are, of course, cauliflowers.

And what happens to them all? Likely as not they'll be turned into cauliflower cheese. We think of cauliflower as boiled and soggy, but its origins are more exotic than a Cornish field in February, and in other parts of the world it's given star treatment. When places like Sicily, Turkey and India respect it, we should certainly take a leaf out of their book and think again about what we're doing to our beautiful home-grown caulis.

The Cypriots or Arabs probably brought it over to these shores, hence one of the French names chou de Chypre. It is now more commonly referred to as chou fleur (cabbage flower). The Italian, cavolfiore, means exactly the same. The chou, cabbage, or brassica family can certainly boast many members including cauli, broccoli, calabrese and Romanesco, the spikey almost flourescent green floreted thing that looks like it has just landed from another planet. These all belong to the botrytis group of cabbages, with flowers that stop growing at the bud stage. The thick stems under the buds are used for storing nutrients, which would have gone into the flowers and eventually the fruits. This makes these varieties richer in vitamins and minerals than other brassicas.

Like many winter vegetables the cauliflower can be cooked so many different ways, each of which transforms it. Roasted, steamed, boiled, sautéed and puréed - ring the changes and the cauliflower will be almost unrecognisable from one dish to the next. I defy anyone to call the cauli boring after they've tried methods other than boiling.

The cauli does like being spiced up a bit. The Italians have lots of interesting ways, cooking their cavolfiore with nuts, raisins and saffron drawing on the Middle-Eastern connection, and Parmesan. In India it's treated to the same spices and herbs as meat and fish with excellent results. Next time you're in an Indian restaurant try a side order of aloo gobi or gobi bhaji. And in the Middle East it can be deep fried in breadcrumbs so the cauliflower is crisp on the outside. It's all a long way from the soggy cauli we've had to put up with.

Cauliflower soup with raisins and barley

Serves 4-6

The Italians are good at matching different flavours, other than simply cheese, to cauliflower and broccoli. Here the sweetness of the raisins and that little unexpected texture of barley works really well, transforming what could be an un-interesting soup into something quite special. Like the classic pasta dish from Puglia with broccoli, raisins and anchovies, the sugariness of the raisins here gives a suprisingly delicious sweet and sour flavour. If you can't find faro, which is similar to ours, then good old pearl barley will be fine. A spoonful of pesto can be dropped into the soup when served to add a dash of colour if you wish.

1 medium onion, roughly chopped
1 leek, white only, roughly chopped
A good knob of butter
1 small- to medium-sized cauliflower, roughly chopped, with the dark outer leaves cut off
750ml vegetable stock (a good cube will do)
500ml milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
3tbsp faro (Italian barley), soaked in cold water for 3-4 hours and simmered in salted water until tender
3tbsp raisins, soaked in hot water overnight
1-2tbsp freshly grated Parmesan

Melt the butter in a pan and with the lid on gently cook the onion and leek, without colouring, for 6-7 minutes, until they are soft. Add the cauliflower, stock and milk. Season, bring to the boil and simmer for 35 minutes, with a lid on, or until the cauliflower is soft. Blend in a liquidiser with the Parmesan until smooth and strain through a fine meshed sieve. Add the raisins, and any soaking liquid, and the barley, bring back to the boil and season again if necessary. You can add a little more Parmesan for added savouriness if you wish, or the pesto.

Gobi bhaji

Serves 4-6

I'm not sure whether many people order it, but this certainly seems to appear on most Indian restaurant menus. The subtle spices and herbs, add to the sweetness of the cauliflower when it goes beyond that al dente stage.

3tbsp ghee or vegetable oil
1 small piece of root ginger, scraped and finely grated or chopped
1¿2 tsp ground turmeric or 1tsp fresh, peeled and finely grated
1 small medium heat green chilli, seeded and finely chopped
1tsp mustard seeds
1tsp ground cumin
1tsp ground coriander
1tsp garam masala
A good pinch of curry leaves
1 medium head of cauliflower, cut into even sized florets (large ones halved)
Juice of half a lemon
250ml vegetable stock
2tbsp chopped fresh coriander

Heat the ghee or oil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and gently cook the spices on a low heat for 2-3 minutes. Add the cauliflower, lemon juice and vegetable stock, season with a good pinch of salt and bring to the boil. Stir well, cover with a tight fitting lid and cook on a very low heat, stirring every so often, for 15 minutes. Remove the lid and continue to cook on a slightly higher heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Add the coriander, stir well and serve.

Scallops with creamed cauliflower, bacon and wild garlic

Serves 4

Creamy puréed cauliflower makes a good alternative to potato in this dish, especially if you are trying to cut down on carbs. It has a sweet, clean taste and acts as a kind of sauce to mop up with the scallops. It may be a bit early but if you live in the country you'll know when the wild garlic's in full swing by the smell. When they're cooked the leaves taste quite mild, and they're well worth harvesting for soups and sauces.

12 medium-large scallops, removed from the shell and cleaned
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
60g streaky bacon or pancetta, cut into small 1cm cubes
80g butter
A handful of wild garlic leaves or 2 cloves of garlic, crushed
1tbsp chopped parsley

for the cauliflower purée

1 small head of cauliflower or half a medium head
Vegetable stock to cover
A good knob of butter

First make the creamed cauliflower. Chop the cauliflower into small pieces and put them into a saucepan with the butter and just cover with vegetable stock. Season with salt and pepper, cover and bring to the boil. Cook for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally then remove the lid and cook on a high heat until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Transfer to a liquidiser and blend until smooth. Re-season and transfer to a clean pan.

Season the scallops on both sides and heat a pan, preferably non stick, with a little oil until almost smoking. Fry the scallops on a high heat for about a minute on each side, then transfer onto a plate. Meanwhile gently cook the bacon in about 20g of the butter (add the garlic cloves now if you are not using wild garlic) for 2-3 minutes without colouring. Add the rest of the butter and heat until foaming, then add the wild garlic leaves and parsley and season with salt and pepper.

To serve, warm up the cauliflower purée and spread a couple of tablespoons on to the centre of warmed serving plates. Arrange the scallops on top and spoon the bacon and garlic mixture over the top.

Lamb's liver with fried cauliflower and shallots

Serves 4

Pan frying a thick slice of cauliflower may not seem the obvious thing to do with it, but it is quite delicious with offal such as liver and kidneys, whether veal, lamb or pork. If you can, buy a whole liver and slice it into 1¿2cm slices or get your butcher to do it and remove any sinew with the point of a sharp knife. If you want to splash out then calf's liver will be a good alternative.

1 medium-sized cauliflower
8 slices of lamb's liver about 50-60g each
Vegetable oil for frying
Butter for frying
Flour for dusting
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

for the sauce

8 medium shallots, peeled and finely chopped
A good knob of butter
2tsp flour
1¿2 tsp tomato purée
50ml white wine
400ml beef stock (a good cube will do)

Trim the leaves from the cauliflower (do not remove the core) and cook whole, in boiling salted water, for 10-15 minutes, until just cooked. Remove from the water and plunge into cold water and leave to cool. Put the cauliflower on a chopping board and cut a couple centimetres off two ends. Then cut 4 x 2cm thick slices, across the cauliflower. Gently cook the shallots in the butter for 2 minutes until soft, add the flour and stir well. Add the tomato purée, then slowly add the white wine and then the beef stock, stirring well to avoid any lumps forming. Bring to the boil and simmer gently for about 10 minutes until the sauce has reduced by half and thickened.

Heat a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil in a non-stick frying pan. Lightly flour the cauliflower and cook on a medium heat for about 3-4 minutes on each side until golden. In another non-stick or heavy frying pan heat a couple of knobs of butter until foaming, season the liver with salt and freshly ground black pepper and cook in the butter for about a minute on each side for pink and another 30 seconds or so for medium, although I would only recommend pink.

To serve, put a slice of cauliflower on each plate and arrange 2 slices of liver on top. Pour the sauce over and around.