Kitchen Shrink: Cauliflower is the New Kale

KITCHEN SHRINK:

Low temps and other quirky weather patterns in California's central valley — the agricultural nucleus of the West Coast — has caused cauliflower to become caviar costly. But this highbrow crucifer with an antioxidant oomph and starchy, potato-like texture is well worth the sticker shock. Here's why.

Cauliflower Power: A member of the Brassicaceae family with noble cousins (including broccoli, Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, turnips and watercress), the giant cauliflower head with its tightly packed florets is high fiber, low cal and fat free — so long as you don't pile on the butter and cheese. Its "curd" also has a surprisingly hearty dose of Vitamin C to ratchet up the immune system.

There's much more. Having a rich store of omega-3 fatty acids, this mighty crufier is an anti-inflammatory warrior to alleviate creaky, achy arthritic joints. Abundant antioxidants kick free radicals to the curb, lower the risk for assorted cancers (especially breast and bladder) and cardiovascular disease, and put the skids on physical signs of aging. A healthy helping of B9s (folate) makes cauliflower an ideal pregnancy food for the developing fetus.

Finally, its load of calcium, phosphorous and selenium boosts bone strength, while other elements and enzymes detoxify the liver.

One word of cauliflower caution: For those with thyroid problems, eat it in moderation as the crucifer tinkers with the absorption of iodine, which is necessary for the proper functioning of the gland.

In Technicolor: Pedestrian-hued white cauliflower can be swapped out for its show-stopping, jewel-toned siblings — whether vibrant purple, soft coral or lime green. The Technicolor varieties are even healthier than the albino ones, containing an extra dose of antioxidant phytonutrients.

The purple heads are packed with anthocyanins, the same pigments in red wine and cabbage with anti-inflammatory, anti-viral and anti-cancer properties, while the orange-tinted curd is the result of a genetic mutation that enables the florets to retain beta carotene, endowing this variety with Vitamin A for skin and eye health.

The green cauliflower is actually a hybrid cross of cauliflower and broccoli, known as broccoflower. These pigments not only dial up the body's defenses, and please the eyes, but also awaken the palate with rich, nutty nuances.

Pick a Winner: When choosing cauliflower make sure it is firm with a good heft. Examine the florets for soft or dark spots, blemishes or mold, and discard these heads. The stem should have a satiny gloss, while the leaves a fresh and bright green appearance.

Don't rinse cauliflower until ready to use, and store for several days in the coolest part of the refrigerator like the crisper drawer.

Use Wisely: The versatile crucifer can be enjoyed raw, cooked or pickled as an appetizer or snack, side dish, soup, salad, relish, or incorporated into a main dish meal. The tough green stalk and leaves can also be used to make soup stock.

Cauliflower pairs well with garlic, assorted cheeses, nuts and raisins, along with the pungent spices of India and the Middle East, particularly turmeric, cumin, cayenne, cardamom, ginger, mustard seed, sumac and saffron.

A trio of purple, green and orange or white florets makes striking eye candy on a crudité platter. Finely diced cauliflower blended with butter or olive oil and goat cheese is a healthier change up for mashed potatoes. Pick a peck of pickled peppers, cucumbers, carrots and cauliflower florets for a farmer's medley to serve with sandwiches or as a side salad.

Blend in frittatas, risottos, primavera pastas, taboulis, vegetarian soups, chilis or curries. Steam, stir fry, sauté, grill or roast with a handful of simple ingredients for crispy florets that burst with fresh flavors of spring and summer.

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••• Recipe: Garlic & Parm Roasted Cauliflower

Ingredients: 1 head of cauliflower; 4 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil; 2 large garlic cloves, minced; juice from one lemon; 1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese; smoked paprika

Method: Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. Cut cauliflower florets into bite-size pieces. In a large mixing bowl, combine oil, lemon juice, garlic and seasonings. Add cauliflower and coat well. Spread chunks on a parchment-lined cookie sheet and bake for about 25 minutes until tender and golden. Remove from oven and sprinkle with cheese. If desired, return to oven just long enough for cheese to melt.

Catharine Kaufman can be reached by e-mail: kitchenshrink@san.rr.com

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