In Paris I learned to appreciate the value of fresh cauliflower. At Rue Cler, our lively neighborhood produce market street near the Eiffel Tower, the vendors announced proudly when their cauliflower arrived from Brittany. That region in western France is known throughout the country for the quality of its cauliflower.
My former colleague, Susan Hermann Loomis, author of French Farmhouse Cookbook, explains why: "The cauliflower grown in Brittany tastes the way cauliflower should - subtle and nutty. It is never strong or biting, always smooth and crisp. Fields of cauliflower blanket Brittany's western coast, where it is bathed by the maritime breezes. It is the air, and the compost used to enrich the soil, that give Breton cauliflower its exceptional quality and renown."
When it comes to cauliflower, I like the approach of French home cooks: Keep the preparation simple. Cauliflower is easy to prepare, as long as you cook and handle it carefully. Friends have asked me why my cauliflower tastes so good, and are surprised to hear that I simply cooked it in water, the way I learned to cook it at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.
In French kitchens, cauliflower, like green vegetables, is cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, with a hint of crispness if the family likes it that way, then drained right away. If the florets are left in their cooking liquid, they lose their flavor and texture, become waterlogged and fall apart.
Many experienced cooks don't use timers, but I find it's useful to be reminded to check my cauliflower with fork tines or a knife tip. Depending on the strength of your burner and the size of your florets, you get to know what is the right cooking time for your taste. If you need to reheat the cauliflower, you can warm it in the oven with a bit of oil or butter so it won't dry, or cover it loosely and heat it in the microwave.
I didn't use to advertise that I use all of the cauliflower, including the base and green ribs, thinking people might scoff at my excessive frugality. But I recently saw that I'm in good company. Three-star chef Roger Verge, author of Vegetables in the French Style, advised following the example of his mother, who made cauliflower stalks into soup with leeks, potatoes and a touch of cream.
To avoid damaging the fragile florets by stirring them, cooks usually transfer the cooked drained cauliflower to a platter or baking dish and add a topping. The classic ways to serve cauliflower in France is as a gratin with bechamel (cream sauce) or cheese sauce, or to sprinkle it with melted butter and parsley. Yet there are other popular preparations that are better nutritionally.
Cooks might coat the florets with tomato sauce or serve it with fresh herb vinaigrette or mustard dressing. Usually the cauliflower accompanies meat or chicken.
In France I learned from my beloved teacher Chef Fernand Chambrette that cauliflower is also a fine partner for seafood, another popular food from Brittany, where Chef Chambrette spends his summers. For his salade bretonne, he stuffs artichoke bottoms with seafood, garnishes them with cauliflower florets and sauces them with a light chive mayonnaise. This recipe appears in the book we co-authored, La Cuisine du Poisson.
Breton cooks have developed a wealth of recipes for the vegetable. Simone Morand, author of Gastronomie Bretonne, studs potato salad with cauliflower florets and sauces the dish either with mayonnaise or with a creamy vinaigrette flavored with chives, parsley and capers. Loomis dresses cauliflower florets with curry vinaigrette and serves them on a bed of hearty greens.
In winter, I find such cauliflower salads are good served warm or lukewarm rather than cold, but more often I opt for a hot cauliflower dish such as a casserole. Dishes of cauliflower baked with other vegetables are becoming popular in modern French cooking. Josephine Araldo and Robert Reynolds, authors of From a Breton Garden, make a colorful casserole by baking cauliflower with an assortment of vegetables - zucchini, green onions and red peppers sauteed in olive oil and butter, cooked white beans, sliced tomatoes and garlic.
Louis Le Roy, who wrote La Cuisine Bretonne d'Aujourd'hui (Breton cooking of today), turns cauliflower into a terrine by layering cooked florets with cauliflower puree enriched with creme fraiche, butter-sauteed tomatoes, shallots and egg yolks; after baking and unmolding the loaf, he serves it with tomato sauce or herb vinaigrette. I like to combine cauliflower and tomatoes in a simpler way, in the recipe below.
CASSEROLE WITH ROSEMARY
Serve this dish with fish, chicken, meat or hard-boiled eggs. Or, for a richer dish, bake it with cheese, following the gratin variation.
1 fresh rosemary sprig
1 large fresh thyme sprig or 1⁄2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 bay leaf
2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive, vegetable oil or butter
1⁄2 onion, chopped
1 or 2 large garlic cloves, minced
an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 large cauliflower, divided into medium-size florets
Wrap rosemary, thyme sprig and bay leaf in a piece of cheesecloth and tie tightly to make a bouquet garni. In a large saucepan, heat oil, add onion, and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until soft but not browned. Add garlic, tomatoes, bouquet garni and salt and pepper to taste. Cook uncovered over medium heat, stirring often, for 15 to 20 minutes, or until tomatoes are soft and sauce is thick and smooth. Discard bouquet garni. Taste and adjust seasoning.
Preheat oven to 190 . In a large pan of boiling salted water, cook cauliflower uncovered over high heat for five to seven minutes, or until florets are just tender when pierced with a small sharp knife. Rinse with cold water and drain carefully and thoroughly. Oil a heavy five-cup gratin dish or other shallow baking dish. Transfer cauliflower to dish in one layer.
Coat cauliflower with tomato sauce. Bake uncovered for 10 minutes or until casserole is hot.
Serve hot or warm.
Prepared cauliflower casserole as above. Preheat oven to 220 . After transferring cauliflower to oiled baking dish and coating florets with tomato sauce, sprinkle florets evenly with two to three tablespoons grated Parmesan or four to six tablespoons shredded Swiss cheese.
Bake until sauce begins to bubble, about seven to 10 minutes. If top is not brown, transfer dish to broiler and broil with door partly open just until cheese is lightly browned, about one minute, checking often and turning dish if necessary so cheese browns evenly. Serve hot, from baking dish.
Makes 4 servings.