The other day, while at home in Vancouver, Vikram Vij noticed an excess of cauliflower had accumulated in his kitchen. It was, for an adventurous chef and restaurateur, a perfect opportunity for culinary experimentation. Vij began “playing,” as he puts it: grating the cauliflower finely, adding salt, pepper and garam masala, the Indian spice blend. He grabbed tuna, “dabbed” it all over with the cauliflower “crumbs,” and slid the fish into a hot pan. As it cooked, Vij realized, “Oh, this could really work!” The proof arrived when he shared the dish with friends. “They said, ‘Oh my God, where did this come from?’ They thought I had breaded it. And I said, ‘No, it’s cauliflower-crusted!’ ” he recalls, still gleeful about the pleasing effect. “It turned out really well.”
He was not totally surprised though, because Vij loves cauliflower. “I’ve always felt that cauliflower never got the recognition it was supposed to,” he says. At least not in North America, where it is often relegated to the raw veggie platter, or overcooked and smothered in cheddar. “If you look at very traditional Indian cooking, cauliflower is one of the most versatile and used vegetables.” Vij isn’t the only prominent chef lauding the crucifer. Last November, Yotam Ottolenghi, an international gourmand and cookbook author known to champion vegetables, lamented in GQ that “people don’t know how good cauliflower is.” He enjoys it fried and tossed in tahini, lemon juice, garlic, yogourt, green onion, mint and parsley.
These chefs are no longer a minority in their praise for cauliflower. “This cruciferous friend is finally taking centre plate,” announced the popular food website Epicurious, which voted cauliflower the “hot vegetable” of 2013—replacing kale. At West Coast Seed Company in Ladner, B.C., which carries more than a dozen varieties of cauliflower, sales have surged in the last nine months, says Mark Macdonald. “It is certainly one of the trendier [vegetables],” he explains, in the same way that arugula and radicchio were in the 1990s, and foods like quinoa and kale have been recently. Boutique grocer Pusateri’s in Toronto celebrated “cauliflower month” in July, and nutritionist Leslie Beck awarded cauliflower her featured food of the month this September. Supermarkets are stocking purple, green and orange cauliflowers, besides white, which often contain more nutrients.
The enthusiasm stems in good part from blogs, which lately have showcased creative ways to cook cauliflower. The vegetable can be turned into just about every other food group: dairy (cauliflower cheese is made by puréeing some with raw, soaked cashews, lemon, garlic and salt); grains (grating and steaming cauliflower produces a rice or couscous); meat (cut a whole cauliflower into thick slabs and fry or grill—Vij’s wife, Meeru Dhalwala, pioneered this approach a few years ago, and the recipe is in their cookbook Vij’s at Home: Relax, Honey). It can even be made into dessert (cauliflower rice pudding or cauliflower-and-pear bake) or put into a smoothie (with apples, in particular). Home chef Melody Tolson has taken to making cauliflower pizza dough by steaming the florets, pureeing them, then adding flour, eggs or a vegan substitute binder, and seasoning. (This is, incidentally, a variation of an old north Indian standard, a flatbread stuffed with grated cauliflower.) Tolson rolls the dough into individual pies, and cooks them on a hot stone at 400 F, flipping them over when one side is cooked, and then topping: “Imagine tomato sauce, cheese and roasted veggies,” she says. “It is fabulous.”
Vij’s favourite way of eating cauliflower is a “classic, old-world” Indian dish of cauliflower and potato called aloo gobi, “which reminds me of my grandmother,” he says. “In fact, I actually had it last night.” But one of the new methods of cooking the vegetable has caught his attention lately: whole, “like a roast.” Vij sprinkles Indian spices all over a head of cauliflower, then wraps it tightly in tinfoil and bakes it until al dente. “Then you bring it to the table, and you unveil it,” says Vij, “as if [it were] a chicken.” In this way, cauliflower seems to be the ultimate ingredient: whatever the cook needs it to be.