I have had a turbulent history with this vegetable. For many years I could either take or leave cauliflower, I didn’t find it in any way offensive, but neither did I find it in any way interesting. It was something else to fill a plate, mainly on a Sunday and covered in gravy.
Then I fell pregnant with my first daughter, and among my various food aversions, by far my strongest reaction was to the humble cauliflower. I had to banish it from my veg box and beg replacements of cabbage or squash, the mere sight of one would send me rushing from the room, hand over mouth, and the smell of it raw, or worse, cooked… well.
After my daughter was born, all my other strange food fads immediately vanished and my tastebuds regained their normal behaviour…except with regard to cauliflower. I had to work hard to gradually regain a basic relationship with cauliflower, and to welcome it back into our diet. I feared all my work would be in vane upon falling pregnant again, but despite the near constant first 14 weeks of sickness, the severe cauliflower aversion of my first pregnancy never returned.
6 years on, and cauliflower is back in our lives with a vengeance, no longer am I indifferent to this native brassica, I have learned to love it, and I sincerely hope I am able to pass on this love to my daughters – as they were, after all, the reason that my issues with cauliflower needed so much attention in the first place.
Like all brassicas, cauliflower has an old image problem. It has all too long sat, over boiled, on the side of many a Sunday dinner plate, white and limp, or worse, rubbery. However, in recent years it has taken centre stage in a brassica revolution. The low carb community are hailing it as a radical non-starchy replacement for potatoes, rice or pizza bases, the traditional chefs are rethinking the age old cooking methods of boiling and steaming, and the vegetarians are letting it become the centrepiece of their dinner tables.
One thing to be said for the brassica, a little bit of roasting, even some charring transforms the flavour, and elevates it to a deeply satisfying, rich, sweet, mineral pungency. Last year’s Christmas dinner sprouts were declared the favourite part of the meal after being roasted amongst sweet chestnuts and whole cloves of garlic. Topping my macaroni cheese with steamed florets of broccoli and cauliflower and dousing in yet more cheese sauce, before baking at a high heat, leave the whole family fighting for the charred cheesy tips of the vegetables.
Brassicas need to go in the oven.
Cauliflower, or its cousin the romanesco (or ‘fractal cabbage’ as we like to call it) undergo such a metamorphosis in the oven that it now seems shameful to associate these majestic vegetables with their outdated, school dinner image. I’m sorry cauliflower, let me make it up to you.
Why not take two great comfort food dishes and serve them together, macaroni cheese, lacks any sort of vegetable nutrition, and cauliflower cheese lacks the carby bulk (if that’s what you desire!) – but together they make a stunning one dish meal.
This is my macaroni/cauliflower ‘cheese’ – which varies slightly each time I make it but can definitely be made all vegan.
One whole head of a medium cauliflower. (£1.95)
1tbs of oil for roasting. (6p)
300g of macaroni pasta (or any good organic pasta, whatever you prefer or have to hand) (72p)
600ml of unsweetened soya milk (48p)
5 tbsp (80g) of dairy free butter (17p)
80g of plain flour (12p)
2 tsp of dijon mustard (15p)
1 heaped tsp of bullion powder (6p)
1/2 cup of nutritional yeast flakes (£1.45)
salt and pepper to taste.
1/2 cup of frozen peas (32p)
Optional toppings of cheese, breadcrumbs or paprika
Heat the oven to 200 degrees C and prepare a roasting tray with the oil. Cut the head of the cauliflower into medium size florets, keeping lots of the stalk and then toss the florets in the heated oil. Add a sprinkle of salt and black pepper and put into the middle of the hot oven.
In a medium sized heavy* pan, heat the butter and quickly add the flour. Stir with a whisk to combine and then cook the resulting roux for 3 minutes. Continue whisking constantly as you add the milk bit by bit, to create a smooth sauce which will thicken as the milk heats through. Add the mustard, bullion powder, yeast flakes and salt and pepper to the sauce, once it comes to the boil, take off the heat.
Meanwhile, in a large pan heat water for boiling the pasta. When the water comes to the boil, add the pasta and cook for the time stated on the packet.
Take a large baking dish, and pour in the cooked, drained pasta. Add the frozen peas and then cover in half the cheese sauce. Stir the sauce through so that the pasta and peas are coated.
By this time the cauliflower should have been in the oven for about 20 minutes. Add the florets of roasted cauliflower to the top of the pasta and pour over the other half of the sauce. This can then be topped with breadcrumbs, cheese, or a sprinkle of paprika if you choose, or can be left just as it is.
Pop the baking dash back in the oven for another 20 minutes to heat through and to brown the top. These organic ingredients work out at just 92p per portion.
This is a really basic version of an infinitely adaptable recipe. I know that everyone will have their favourite pasta and most people will have their favourite way of making a ‘cheese’ sauce and their preferred way of topping off a baked dish.
I vary this virtually every time I make it. I’ve used broccoli florets, cubes of butter nut squash or halved brussel sprouts, roasted with the cauliflower, to add variety and to use up what’s in the veg box. I’ve also added cherry tomatoes or steamed leeks in with the peas and cheese sauce. It is also possible to vary the carbohydrates and use brown rice or quinoa instead of pasta which are good gluten free alternatives. The bottom line is, carbohydrate + roasted brassicas + ‘cheese’ sauce = a really good dinner, however you decide to tweak it.
* A heavy pan, cast iron for example, will allow you to pour the milk with one hand, whisk with the other and not spin about all over the place. It will also distribute the heat more evenly and prevent your sauce from catching on the bottom of the pan.