Mark Twain, in that admirable compendium Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar, wrote: 'Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.' Twain may have been praising education, but note the sneer at the cauliflower, a jumped-up cabbage, an upstart. It may be that too many of us think of the cauliflower in terms of our own education, of that destroyer of gastronomic taste, the school meal. Just dropped in boiling water and cooked until soggy, the maltreated cauliflower shares a number of defects with its cabbage relatives: its stench is pervasive and its flavour dull.
Botanically, Twain is right. If evolution is an education, cauliflower, a member of the mustard family (along with most cabbages, sprouts and that lost delicacy kohlrabi), first grew wild, then differentiated as it was cultivated, or educated. And to my mind, plentiful, inexpensive, and available the year round, the cauliflower - especially in winter - is a vegetable of substance and quality, and will fill a meal out far better than many of its flossier rivals.
Nursery nostalgia makes me think gratefully of two hot, creamy dishes - cauliflower au gratin and macaroni cheese - but the cauliflower-dairy combination is far from being the only one available to the inventive cook, though it may well be the best single-dish poor man's meal, and a vegetarian's delight.
Buying a good cauliflower is relatively easy. Size does not make for quality, but neither does it inhibit quality. Buy it with its circumambient leaves if you can because that keeps the globe or flower fresh and those leaves are excellent in soups and stocks. Make sure its surface has no mottling that indicates it is going off.
Most good cauliflower dishes describe using the flowerlets rather than the whole. To obtain these, turn your cauliflower upside down, slice off the main stem as high as you can get, and then each subsequent stem, until all you have is the flowerlet plus a very thin stemlet. Try to keep them even in size so that all will cook in the same time.
In this shape, the cauliflower has endless uses. One of our favourites is simply stir-frying the flowerlets in a wok; this releases their intrinsic astringent taste, which you may temper with a little white wine or chicken stock. In my mother's part of Italy (Florence and Emilia), the flowerlets are often sauted in butter and covered with parmesan before serving. They make an admirable salad, cooked in just enough very good olive oil and a dash of vinegar.
In Spain I have had them as a salad stirred in oil and garlic, and in Portugal once, memorably, with chopped fresh anchovies. Equally traditional is to fry the flowerlets, heavily sprinkled with breadcrumbs, in hot olive oil: the crumbs do something for the texture of the vegetable. In all these, and indeed most cases, the cauliflower flowerlets are cooked only to the point that they are tender, not until they are soft.
Among the great triumphs of the cauliflower, and one not often found in restaurants, is the combination of cauliflower and pasta. Flat pasta is generally preferred to round, and the flowerlets are still further reduced in size, to the point that they are just single flowers and can thus be spread throughout the dish.
A very good sauce for pasta with cauliflower is mustard- based. You cream 4 tbs butter with 2 tbs of the hottest Dijon mustard you have, three shallots and two cloves of finely chopped garlic, chopped parsley and a few chopped leaves from the cauliflower. Separately saute a solid handful of breadcrumbs in another 3 tbs butter until they are browned. In the water you have prepared for your pasta, drop in your cauliflower flowers and cook for one minute, or roughly until the water returns to the boil. Then take them out and add to the butter. Cook your pasta, add it to the cauliflower and serve garnished with the breadcrumbs.
I also like Anna del Conte's cavolfiore stufato, in which 1 tbs of chopped parsley and a chopped clove of garlic are first fried briefly in 3 tbs olive oil. To that is added 1 tbs of tomato puree, which is briefly stirred into the mixture, and then the flowerlets, taking care to turn them frequently (and gently) so they are well coated. When they have wilted (five minutes or so) pour in 200ml of meat stock (veal is best, but chicken will do), season to taste and cook for about 15 minutes. Do not overcook] The sauce is reduced and then poured over before serving.
If after trying these dishes you still dislike cauliflower, then it is you, not the cauliflower, that lacks an education. How to acquire one? Well, a clue is that you should not seek to cover or conceal the taste, but rather enhance it. Use all means available, every variety of cheese and herb, even the wildest. Cauliflower sauted with freshly picked mushrooms? Delicious. You will learn that among its many properties, the cauliflower is also well nigh indestructible. Except in schools.