Corny-flower. Slowly pedaling toward 60, my father still won’t eat cauliflower. He calls it names and turns his nose and vehemently refuses to eat it. He hates it with a passion usually reserved for Brussels sprouts and broccoli and, not surprisingly, there’s a reason. Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable, a member of the cabbage family, actually, and when overcooked it emits the same sulfur compounds. You wouldn’t lick a wet dog or munch on a spent match, would you? So why would you eat vegetables that make your nose hairs curl?
Frankly, I didn’t like cauliflower much as a kid either. It paled, literally, in color and flavor to its sweet, evergreen brethren. And since my dad wouldn’t eat it and my brother didn’t eat any vegetables, my mom rarely prepared it. Then, about five years ago my flatmate, Ben, steamed up a few fresh white florets and doused them with a rich, homemade cheese sauce. They were sweet, nutty and slightly creamy in flavor and didn’t taste like I’d been forced to suck on rotten eggs. Plus, I found out later, they’re packed with vitamin C, K and lots of antioxidants. I was converted.
Still, no cauliflower I’d ever eaten prepared me for the beautiful Romanesco variety I found at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market a couple of weeks ago. Like an M.C. Escher painting, the florets on this heirloom, baseball-sized cultivar, are repeating fractal shapes. You can get lost in their elegant geometry and faded chartreuse-like color, which becomes more vivid when cooked. It has been cultivated in Italy for nearly 2,000 years, but has only recently begun appearing among the more common purple, green and white orbs at the market.
I grabbed a couple of heads, popping them in a plastic bag before sticking them in the fridge, and began pondering how to prepare them. While I found a lot of interesting recipes for cauliflower, they all seemed designed to mask its flavor instead of enhance it. I finally settled on the simplest preparation I could imagine:
2 heads Romanesco cauliflower, thoroughly rinsed
¼ cup olive oil
½ tsp sea salt or coarse kosher salt
¼ tsp hot chile flake
¼ tsp fresh cracked black pepper
Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Place cleaned cauliflower heads in small baking dish. Drizzle with olive oil, sprinkling with salt, chile flake and pepper. Bake until tender, about 30 minutes.
When I pulled the Romanescos out of the oven they were the same neon green as my favorite shirt back in the ’80s (which seems to be back in fashion these days—yikes). The curd, the technical term for the florets, was so tender it I could easily cut it with a butter knife. I ladled these beauties up and ate them with quick-fix salmon croquettes for lunch. Sweeter, nuttier and more complex than any cauliflower I’d ever eaten, I can’t wait to try these out on my dad. There are only a few more weeks before they’re out of season, but these mathematical gems might make those with a corny-flower-phobia say mmmm.