Jane Says: Don't Confuse White Vegetables With Pale Processed Foods
“The cauliflower looks beautiful at my farmers market. I’m tempted to pick up some, but aren’t white vegetables supposed to be terrible for you?”
So-called white foods such as white rice, white potatoes, anything made with sugar, and white-flour products like white bread and pasta have come to be viewed as “bad carbs,” and thus a key player in America’s obesity epidemic. But unprocessed whole white vegetables like cauliflower, turnips, parsnips, kohlrabi, onions, mushrooms, white beans, and yes, even potatoes (a rich source of vitamins, including a hefty amount of vitamin C; minerals such as potassium, calcium, iron, phosphorus; essential amino acids; and complex carbohydrates), are just as critical to a well-balanced, healthy diet as the deeply colored vegetables that garner most of the attention these days.
Of course, color is an important indicator in some respects; red, orange, and yellow pigments in vegetables signify that they contain potent cancer-fighting carotenoids. But nutrients for which color is not an accurate measure include potassium, dietary fiber, calcium, and vitamins C and D. And so white vegetables are increasingly being looked at by researchers, including a group at Wageningen University, in the Netherlands, who found a link between the increased consumption of white fruits and vegetables and a lower risk of stroke, and a 2012 scientific roundtable convened by Purdue University, which identified an important body of data that shows how white vegetables are a richer source of essential shortfall nutrients such as fiber, potassium, and magnesium.
Like other members of the Brassica family—which includes broccoli, brussels sprouts, collards, and kale—cauliflower is an excellent source of vitamins C and K, folate, and dietary fiber (it contains almost 12 grams of fiber in every 100 calories). It’s a good source of vitamins B5 (pantothenic acid) and B6 (pyridoxine), manganese, and tryptophan, an amino acid that’s converted by the body into the hormone serotonin, which helps elevate mood, promote relaxation, and assist in dealing with stress. And its abundance of antioxidant phytonutrients includes beta-carotene, ferulic acid, rutin, and quercetin.
Cauliflower is basically an evolved form of broccoli. According to Elizabeth Schneider in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference, the process of cultivating the flower stems to form a tight head—which is called the curd or, more beguilingly, the fleece—probably began sometime in the 16th century. For the white or cream-colored cauliflower preferred in the United States (back in the day, it had to look good draped with béchamel), Schneider notes that “the fleece must be hidden from the sun to retain its tenderness and pale complexion.” So most farmers tie up the large leaves around the new head to keep it under wraps, so to speak.
The vegetable can also be found in an array of colors, from yellow to purple, depending on factors such as variety, soil, growing region, and climate. They all pretty much taste the same, and you can use them interchangeably in recipes. Orange cauliflower, which stems from a natural (spontaneous) mutant found in Canada, contains over 25 percent more beta-carotene than white cultivars.
What you see sold under the trademarked name Broccoflower, by the way, is not a broccoli-cauliflower cross as is often thought, but actually a green cauliflower, from the Macerata region of Italy. And despite its moniker, the ornately turreted broccoli romanesco is most definitely a cauliflower as well, one that originated along the stretch of Mediterranean coastline between Rome and Naples.
One of the virtues of buying cauliflower at a farmers market or roadside stand is that you are getting it as fresh as possible—and with this vegetable, that’s the key to falling in love. It should be mild and nutty in flavor, with a nubbly, crumbly texture. For reluctant children (or adults), try cutting an ultrafresh cauliflower into florets and serving it raw with a bowl of homemade Russian dressing or bagna cauda for dipping.
Cauliflower is also a wonderful staple for meatless meals, especially if you take advantage of the seasonings and flavorings of parts of the world in which this vegetable is often given pride of place: the Mediterranean, Middle East, Southeast Asia, and India.
Steak night, for instance, will take on a whole new meaning if you cut a cauliflower, core and all, into “steaks,” sauté them, and then finish them off in the oven. I like to serve cauliflower prepared this way with a Sicilian-style caper-raisin pan sauce, à la my good friend Greg Lofts. Simply melt a few tablespoons unsalted butter in a small skillet over medium-high heat, add about 3 tablespoons rinsed capers (preferably salt-packed), 2 tablespoons golden raisins, and ¼ teaspoon minced hot fresh chile and cook 30 seconds. Add 1/4 cup sherry vinegar and simmer 2 minutes; pour over cauliflower steaks.
And I’m looking forward to revisiting a favorite winter salad, one made with roasted cauliflower and hazelnuts, from the 2012 cookbook Jerusalem, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. Although given what I recently learned about omega-3s, I just may try substituting walnuts this year.