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Cauliflower: A Love Story

A confession: I'm obsessed with cauliflower. And I'm not sorry.

If a head of this funny-looking crucifer doesn't find its way into at least one meal a week, I'm either having a bad month or am out of town too much. A dinner without cauliflower feels off-balance, lackluster. A life without cauliflower is no life at all.

It wasn't always thus.

Back when I was a more finicky diner, cauliflower hardly made it onto my vegetal horizon. When we did meet — steamed, stir-fried or sauteed — I usually politely demurred and pushed it to the side of my plate. Maybe I liked it raw, but only as a vehicle for some of those awful-yet-irresistible onion dips, its cool crunch couched in smooth sour cream so that I hardly noticed what was underneath.

But we all grow up, and my palate grew up, too. I started to appreciate all the colors of the garden, and was more willing to try new things. I came, reluctantly, to beets (when they're roasted and used as a base for spinach salad one might experience a small taste miracle). I wholeheartedly embraced asparagus. Then, one chilly night in San Francisco, inspired by my farmers' market, I tossed a bunch of cauliflower florets lightly in olive oil and salt and threw them into the oven — and I fell in love.

There was no going back.

"Cauliflower," wrote Mark Twain, "is nothing but cabbage with a college education." What's wrong with cabbage? Neither should be maligned.

There are so many ways to adore you, cauliflower. I love you for your delicious, crumbly gratins baked for an hour in the oven on Friday evenings. I love your Monday night soups quickly whirled together and laced with mushrooms and herbes de Provence. I love your lazy Sunday afternoon curries served with coconut rice. But I think best of all I love you slow-roasted at 400 degrees for about a half hour.

Cauliflower (brassica oleracea var. botrytis) is related to the aforementioned cabbage, as well as broccoli, and belongs to the plant order capparales. The plant reproduces by seeds and is found in most supermarkets year-round, and is good any night of any season.

Cauliflower is thought to have origins in Cyprus, which may explain my passion. I love all things from that part of the Mediterranean. I wonder if the Greek side of the family I've never met grew creamy cauliflowers in their island gardens and served them with fresh, stewed tomatoes and feta cheese.

My favorite approach is to find an organic, healthy-looking head and, after washing, to cut it into smallish pieces and coat with olive oil and salt. I then roast it until easily pierced with a fork, and when it's alternately soft and crispy with good blackened bits along the sides of the pan, I pick at it gingerly with a spoon while hovering nearby and waiting for it to cool. A roasted cauliflower is nothing less than transcendent.

As my love affair with cauliflower progressed, I longed to know more about it, especially those colorful specimens I'd see in the market — green, orange, purple. It was not enough that cauliflower is delicious and colorful. It's also good for you, low in fat, high in fiber, folate, vitamin C and vitamin B6.

As I pored through seasonal cookbooks, I found that the orange heads — which include "cheddar" and "orange bouquet" varieties — contain 25 times the level of vitamin A of white varieties.

Green cauliflower, sometimes called broccoflower, is seen with the normal curd shape and in a variant spiky curd called romanesco broccoli. These green-curded types include alverda, green goddess and vorda. There also is purple cauliflower, its color caused by the presence of the antioxidant group anthocyanin. It is exotically named "graffiti" and "purple cape."

Like broccoli, cauliflower, as a member of the brassica family, has several phytochemicals (fruit- and vegetable-derived chemical compounds beneficial to human health) including sulforaphane, an anti-cancer compound released when the vegetable is chopped.

Cauliflower's main selling point, though, is that it tastes so good. I dream about cauliflower roasted until it softens and blackens, the heat bringing out its inherent sweetness. With a poached egg and a slice of good bread, the caramelized florets make a quick and delicious weeknight supper.

And cauliflower soup. Oh, I could write poems to a creamy, garlicky broth made from simmered florets and a dash of herbs and black pepper. Be not afraid of a certain blandness that can mark vegetable soups; if you leave out milk, the true, delicate flavor of the cauliflower sings through, and you'll be scraping your spoon at the bottom of your bowl wishing for more. That you're also getting a bellyful of vitamins C and B6 is simply an added attraction.

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Nicole Spiridakis