How to cook cauliflower, the mild but versatile vegetable

Charred cauliflower with anchovies, capers and olives.
Charred cauliflower with anchovies, capers and olives.PHOTO: KARSTEN MORAN/THE NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - I love the versatility of the unassuming cauliflower. In vegetable terms, it is a blank canvas. That is not to say itis flavourless, but cauliflower's relatively mild personality is ready to be transformed in combination with a vast number of other flavourful ingredients. Its nature is to absorb and comply.

One easy and delicious way to prepare cauliflower is to steam or boil it, then anoint it. Cook thick slices until just done and arrange them on a plate. Drizzle them with fruity extra-virgin olive oil or melted butter, and sprinkle with flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. This is a subtle but satisfying option.

But cauliflower, like many other vegetables, benefits from high heat, which brings out its sweet disposition. From a pan or hot oven, the heat allows the vegetable to caramelise and char.

For my market-fresh cauliflower, I looked to both methods and devised what is essentially a baked cauliflower salad, which can be used in myriad ways. I cut the cauliflower into irregular half-inch slices and blanched them briefly in boiling water.

Then I whisked together a robust lemony dressing with the classic mixture of anchovies, capers and olives. With the cauliflower pieces well coated, I transferred the mixture to a baking dish and popped it, uncovered, into the oven.

Twenty minutes was sufficient to intensify the seasoning, and to brown the cauliflower here and there, even letting it char a bit, for a rustic presentation with deep flavor.

Mellow and gently charming, cauliflower pairs well with nearly everything, and this salad is no exception. Toss it with freshly cooked spaghetti, then shower it with grated pecorino and toasted bread crumbs. Try it as a warm almost-vegetarian main course, paired with rice pilaf, roasted sweet potatoes or sautéed greens.

Serve it hot or at room temperature. Make it a first course antipasto, finished with a flourish of extra-virgin olive oil. It could even grace a buffet table. It's also a simple make-ahead side dish to accompany a number of main courses, whether roast chicken, pork chops or fish fillets - a testament to its easygoing nature.

And to Drink …
If you are serving this recipe as a side dish, you will want to match the wine to the main course. But if this charred cauliflower dish is the centerpiece, it calls for a white wine. The vegetable itself and its flavourings are somewhat at odds. Simply roasted, the cauliflower would pair well with complex, diffuse, barrel-aged whites, like classic white Riojas, white Rhône blends or Oregon chardonnays. But the piquant flavors of the anchovies, olives and capers will go better with crisp, more focused whites. Grüner veltliner would be a good choice. So would one of many different Italian whites, whether Soave, verdicchio or fiano. Vermentinus (as vermentino is called in Corsica) would be delicious, as would Muscadet or a sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley. - Eric Asimov


Charred Cauliflower With Anchovies, Capers and Olives

Yield: 4 to 6 servings Total time: 1 hour

Ingredients
1 medium cauliflower (about 680g)
Salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 to 6 anchovy fillets, rinsed, patted dry and finely chopped
½ cup roughly chopped good-quality green or black olives
1 Tbs capers, rinsed, patted dry and roughly chopped
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling
2 Tbs lemon juice
1 tsp grated lemon zest
Pepper
½ tsp red-pepper flakes, or to taste
½ cup roughly chopped parsley
3 Tbs chopped scallions

Method
1. Put a large pot of water on the stove and bring to a boil. Meanwhile, with a large knife, cut the cauliflower into quarters. Cut off the tough core at the stem end of each piece. Cut cauliflower quarters into rough ½-inch (1.3cm) slices. Cut larger slices into several pieces, so all the chopped cauliflower is about the same size.

2. Salt boiling water generously and add chopped cauliflower. Cook for 2 minutes, then drain and spread out on a baking sheet to cool.

3. In a large bowl, put garlic, anchovy, olives, capers, olive oil, lemon juice and lemon zest. Whisk ingredients together and taste. Adjust salt or lemon juice as necessary.

4. Add blanched cauliflower to the bowl. Season lightly with salt and pepper. Add a generous pinch of red-pepper flakes, or add to taste, and toss cauliflower with your hands to coat evenly with dressing.

5. Transfer mixture to a shallow baking dish, small roasting pan or sheet pan. (Recipe may be prepared up to this point several hours ahead of baking.)

6. To finish, heat oven to 230 deg C. Bake cauliflower, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until top is browned and beginning to char in some places. For extra char, place dish under broiler for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool for 5 to 10 minutes. Serve at room temperature with a sprinkling of parsley and scallions. Drizzle with a little more olive oil, if desired.