A few years ago, while home for a visit, my son spoke excitedly about a roasted cauliflower dish he had recently eaten at a hipster Brooklyn establishment. I thought to myself, Cauliflower is the new fad.
Well, that fad has lasted, and now many restaurants serve it, and the media is inundated with cauliflower recipes by chefs and home cooks. It is hailed as a superfood. To observers of low-carb or gluten-free diets, it is a stand-in for couscous and pizza crust, and for vegetarians or vegans, it is served as “steak.” When I think about cauliflower, though, I do not associate it with any of this. Rather, I trace my love for this “flower” to my late mother’s kitchen in Israel. I still remember the pungent, borderline-noxious, odor of her fried florets, which I adored.
There are many reasons to eat cauliflower, and many ways to cook it. It is rich in nutrients and phytochemicals and low in calories and fat. Of the various cooking methods, my favorite is roasting. Caramelizing its white “curds” draws out and highlights its natural sweetness, while the florets become simultaneously buttery and crunchy. And I am proud to say that this simple method of preparation appears to have originated in my home country of Israel.
The New York Times recently named Israeli chef Eyal Shani the father of the global cauliflower trend in general and the method of whole-head roasting in particular, though he credits his business partner Shahar Segal, whose mother made it this way, for the idea. Shani is responsible for the roasted-cauliflower craze in Israel, which was then brought over to the US by Israeli-American chefs Alon Shaya of Domenica and Shaya in New Orleans and Michael Solomonov of Zahav in Philadelphia.
Shani’s method has us first parboil the head, leaves still intact, for 15 minutes before roasting it in a burning wood oven. The parboiling, which sometimes aims to rid the cauliflower of its distinctive odor and intense flavor, seems unnecessary. Plus, after ten minutes of boiling, the cauliflower may also lose up to fifty percent of its nutrients.
The alternative cooking technique I suggest here is to salt the whole head and roast it completely wrapped in aluminum foil for part of the cooking time. The head cooks in its own steam, retaining its nutrients, unlike when boiling. The foil is then unwrapped, and the cauliflower continues to roast, getting crisp, its wafting aroma a promise of the deliciousness to come.
The recipe I suggest here is also an answer to the idea some chefs have about what is a proper vegetarian substitute on their menu. As vegetarian, I am sometimes offered a vegetarian main course that is comprised solely of several types of vegetables. While cauliflower steak appears meaty, it is not protein. My recipe of roasted cauliflower with hummus and spice-infused sautéed onions is rich with nutrients and layers of flavors, making it a hearty winter meal, not just for vegetarians. Though it is not quite the fried cauliflower from my mother’s kitchen, it brings together many of the elements I remember fondly.