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Cauliflower’s calling

**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES**   This undated phoprovided by The Cook's Garden shows Cauliflower Rainbow Mix.  Micro

**FOR USE WITH AP LIFESTYLES** This undated photo provided by The Cook's Garden shows a Cauliflower Rainbow Mix. Micro greens and sprouts, those immature vegetables short on size but large on taste, are making their way from trendy restaurants and stylish markets into family kitchens. (AP Photo/The Cook's Garden) **NO SALES**

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Updated: March 28, 2013 6:03AM

Not all vegetables are deserving of quotes by famous writers (sorry, wax beans). But, love it or hate it, cauliflower has always managed to stand out, even to Mark Twain, who said, “Cauliflower is nothing but a cabbage with a college education.”

Take a quick glance at area restaurant menus and it’s clear that higher-education reform — as it applies to cauliflower, er, cabbage — has hit Chicago, and these florets are graduating summa cum laude. It’s not just white cauliflower, either. Today, diversity is at play, and different strains of cauliflower come in red, orange, green and even purple. The cornucopia of colors only adds to the creativity and the pedigree.

Gone are the days of boring old steamed cauliflower topped with cheese sauce (although for us cauliflower-philes, that’s delicious, too). Now you can find it mashed, fried, served as a “steak,” smothered in a cream and cheese sauce and so much more. The options unfurl before us, much like the head of cauliflower below its protective leaves. A glimpse at a few Chicago menus reveal crispy cumin cauliflower at The Boarding House, roasted cauliflower steak at Davanti Enoteca, cauliflower curry at Atwood Cafe, blackened cauliflower at Gilt Bar, slow-roasted cauliflower at Longman & Eagle, roasted cauliflower at Girl & the Goat, charred cauliflower at The Purple Pig, cauliflower gratin at Prasino, even cauliflower as a pizza topping (Renaldi’s Pizza, Pat’s Pizza, Sonny’s Restaurant and Pizzeria, Di Vita’s Restaurant & Pizzeria).

This cruciferous vegetable, which comes from the Brassicaceae family, is a rather chunky relative to its more delicate sisters — broccoli and kale — and a more dramatic sibling to its rotund brothers — turnips, rutabaga, Brussels sprouts and Chinese cabbage. It’s packed with vitamin C, fiber and antioxidants, and can be camouflaged as a starch substitute (mashed cauliflower is a delicious low-carb version of mashed potatoes) or hold its own raw or roasted.

Not unlike Brussels sprouts, cauliflower often is associated with that childhood clean-your-plate trauma. That, says Ricardo Pineda, who is executive chef at Nana in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, is why adults are so often surprised to find that cauliflower does, in fact, taste good.

“It’s making a comeback,” says Pineda. And he’s doing his part to help speed along the cauliflower renaissance. In the fall, when Pineda changed the menu at Nana, he admits he was initially hesitant to put a cauliflower salad on it. “It was a risk,” he says. “I was 50/50 on it because I didn’t know if it was going to sell. It’s a vegetable that doesn’t shine by itself. You can put raw cauliflower on a plate and no one’s going to eat it.”

But he took that risk, and anyone who’s ever tried that salad is glad he did. In the dish, the cauliflower is thinly sliced and served raw, along with celery, chives, parsley, flash-fried Brussels sprouts and topped with a remarkably light olive oil and lemon juice dressing. It’s an “eat-your-vegetables” platter if there ever was one. And yet, the dish is a huge hit. “It’s been one of the top-selling salads we have here,” says Pineda, who admits that one of the best parts of his job is teaching people how delicious fresh, healthy, organic foods can be. With the cauliflower salad, he says he gets to see that lesson in action all the time. “It makes me happy to see people happy when they eat it,” he says. “Because they’re like, ‘Oh! This is different. I never thought about eating it this way.’”

If Pineda’s cauliflower salad is revelation of how light and delicious cauliflower can taste when raw, the cauliflower gratin at Mindy’s Hot Chocolate is a lesson on just how decadent a vegetable can be. Smothered in rich sauce made of cream and Gruyere cheese and served with a crisp brulee on top, the rich cauliflower gratin is the perfect addition to a winter meal of comfort food. After trying cauliflower in this form, you may never give a second thought to potatoes au gratin, again.

But that’s not the only way you’ll find cauliflower served here. Mindy Segal, who owns Mindy’s Hot Chocolate, doesn’t just see a head of cauliflower when she looks at those white clusters. She sees a world of potential and pairings. “I love cauliflower for its versatility, its flavor, its texture,” says Segal. “It’s a great vegetable. It’s great with caviar, it’s great with Parmesan cheese, it’s great with meats, it’s great with fish,” she says, adding that she has served cauliflower roasted, as a soup, and even served it whole, like a steak. “It’s just got a lot of different things going on,” says Segal.

The cauliflower boom has been good for local farmers, such as Lloyd Nichols, who, along with his wife and three sons, owns Nichols Farm and Orchard, in Marengo, about 40 miles northwest of Chicago. The Nichols’ family planted more than 15 varieties of cauliflower this year, and watched the fields as rows upon rows of red, orange, green, purple and white cauliflower sprung up, each growing two to three feet high, surrounded by massive leaves. As usual, they took it to the Green City Market in Lincoln Park on Wednesdays and Saturdays, selling about the same amount to shoppers as usual. It was the restaurants, though, that took the family by surprise.

“All of a sudden, we sold out all of the cauliflower in one week when we thought it was supposed to take a month to sell,” says Nick Nichols, Lloyd’s son, who works with chefs and restaurants to fill orders for local, organic produce. “Unfortunately, by the time you realize that something is going to be really popular that year or that season it’s already over with, so it’s really hard to plant any more.”

Nick and his father attribute the rise in popularity to the fact that Chicago restaurants are embracing the novelty of the colors, the versatility of the plant, and the recent shift to using local ingredients. “It’s a seasonal thing,” says Lloyd, “It’s one of the few things that is available even at this time of year.”

Of course, it’s also one of the few vegetables available with a college education. At least, according to Twain.

Kate Silver is a local freelance writer.

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