Fall’s ‘it’ vegetable: Cauliflower as comfort food

WASHINGTON — Celebrity chefs cook with it; health professionals rave about it and The New York Daily News dubbed it “the new kale of 2015.”

It’s cauliflower — and the cruciferous vegetable is more popular than ever.

“You’re going to see it done a million ways — especially now in the colder months,” says Ryan Ratino, the chef de cuisine at Masa 14.

For years, the white florets were relegated to steamer bags in the frozen food aisle. Now, cauliflower is popping up on restaurant menus across the country, and home cooks are subbing it in for everything from pasta to pizza crust.

Benjamin Lambert, executive chef at 701 on Pennsylvania Avenue, says cauliflower’s textural versatility and its ability to take on the flavors of other ingredients makes it a favorite among chefs.

“You can manipulate it very easily,” says Lambert, who serves cauliflower shawarma with miso-hummus, plumped golden raisins, tomato compote, labne and lavash on 701’s dinner menu.

He says the meaty quality of the vegetable also makes it a hearty and substantial alternative for those who prefer a meat-free meal — a demographic to which more restaurants are catering.

One of his favorite ways to prepare cauliflower is to poach it and then sear it like a steak to “lock in a crisp outer layer while keeping it tender on the inside.”

“Vegetables are definitely a thing to see in the future with the rising costs of all the different proteins,” he says. “And they’re better for you.”

At Rose’s Luxury, Chef Aaron Silverman serves his hand-cut chitarra pasta with caramelized cauliflower and white wine soffritto. Across town, Brad Deboy of Blue Duck Tavern fries it up and serves the crispy florets with vadouvan and caper raisin vinaigrette.

Baseball fans can even grab a bite of cauliflower while catching a game at Nationals Park with Mike Isabella’s roasted cauliflower sandwich at G’s stadium stand.

In the D.C. area, cauliflower comes into season in the early fall months and hangs around through January, making it a common ingredient in cold-weather dishes. And it’s especially appealing to those who want a taste of classic comfort foods without all the guilt.

Cauliflower is low in calories and packed with vitamin C, potassium, fiber and folic acid, but mashed and combined with olive oil, it tastes similar to a pile of mashed potatoes. Chopped and baked with cheddar, it passes for a rich and creamy spin on macaroni and cheese.

Grated cauliflower can even be baked and used in place of a traditional pizza crust.

“Everyone’s trying to put a spin on it,” says Masa 14’s Ratino.

At the 14th Street restaurant, Ratino brines cauliflower in a saltwater solution, dries it and roasts it in the oven. Once it’s nice and tender, he throws it in a hot wok and adds in some chili, caramelized shallots and ginger. He says this method is simple to recreate at home: If you don’t have a wok, just finish off the cauliflower in a hot saute pan.

Lambert says an easy way to incorporate cauliflower into your next weeknight dinner is to throw it into a soup. Start by softening some onion and garlic in a Dutch oven or stockpot. Next, add in cauliflower florets, along with salt and pepper and combine it with vegetable or chicken stock. Purée the ingredients with an immersion blender and finish it off with a bit of dairy, Lambert suggests.

Want to give cauliflower a try? Click through the recipes in the gallery to the right and find a dish that hits your cravings, or click on one of the tweets below.

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