Mallorcan farmers plant cauliflower seeds in June, July and August and harvest them from September until well into May. The cauliflower dislikes the heat and is always at its best during cold weather. Frosty conditions don’t affect it in any way, but it doesn’t flourish in winter’s damp misty weather.
During the past few months cauliflowers have been one of the best buys at the market: they’ve been weighing in at up to 1.5 kilos with white firm heads tightly nestled in green leaves.
Most of those I see at shops and stalls are being sold by the unit, which means around €1.50 for a cauliflower that will provide up to three dishes for a family of four. That makes it a nice little bargain.
When buying cauliflowers go for those with tight white heads. The head can also be called the flower but its proper name is curd. The best curds are those well wrapped in green leaves that protect them from bruising and from developing mould. Avoid those with blemishes or dark patches.
The leaves are full of vitamins and minerals and should be used if they are green and fresh. They can be finely chopped and added to soup and sauces. Even the ubiquitous cauliflower in white sauce with a grated cheese topping is enhanced if the finely minced green leaves are stirred into it.
The chopped leaves can be used for livening up vinaigrettes, and the most delicate ones can be kept for the salad bowl. In Indian cooking, in which some dishes can be of an overall and boring brown colour, the chopped leaves and their cooked whitish stalks are often included to add a splash of colour contrast.
Most housewives, and even some professional cooks, make one very big mistake with cauliflower: they overcook it. For the housewives, the fault lies in cookbook recipes that give overlong cooking times for cauliflower and other veggies.
Partly cooked cauliflower in restaurants is kept warm until needed, so there comes a moment when it is overdone, water-laden, and of an unpleasant grey colour.
Some trendy cooks go to the other extreme: their florets are submerged in boiling water or stock for 30 seconds before being served. What you get is a warm raw floret instead of one that’s al dente.
So great care must be taken when you are cooking florets. They should be of roughly of the same size. If not, some will be uncooked, others too soft, and only a few al dente.
When you have a mound of raw or parboiled florets, all kinds of simple dishes can be made with them. An Italian way with florets is so basic you are unlikely to find it in any cookbook.
Italian Cauliflowers recipe
Poach medium-sized florets in well salted boiling water for 90 seconds and drain well in a colander. Thinly slice four or five plump cloves of garlic and leave them on small plate. Heat three tablespoons of virgen extra olive oil (or more, depending on the amount of florets) in a frying pan big enough to take the florets in a single layer.
When the oil is hot but not smoking, add the florets and sauté them over a highish heat. As they slightly char in some parts, add the sliced garlic and stir-fry with the florets until the garlic is golden and crisp. Sprinkle on salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.
Some Italian cooks do this dish with raw florets rather than poaching them first. The florets are especially tasty this way, but they should be started off on a lower heat.
Italian cooks dip slightly poached florets in batter and deep-fry them as part of their fritto misto. Spanish cooks do the same and serve them as a tapa or part of their fritura andaluza.
Mallorcans are especially fond of batter-fried florets and they find the island’s best version at Bodega La Rambla in Vía Roma, just up from La Rambla where the flower stalls are. The cooks there use raw florets and they are by far the best I have ever had.
Batter-fried florets should be taken from the deep-fryer to the table with no embellishments of any kind, although a sprinkling of roughly chopped curly parsley won’t do them any harm.
If the cauliflower has good fresh leaves, pull them apart with your fingers into thumb-length pieces and batter-fry them. They make a lovely morsel to serve with the florets, or to have with a preprandial dry sherry or a glass (or two) of cava — both served in proper glasses and at from-the-freezer temperatures.
Florets can be used to make a colourful warm salad that will brighten up a cold winter’s day. Poach them in water acidulated with lemon juice to keep them white.
To the drained hot florets quickly add roughly chopped Italian mortadella (available at El Corte Inglés and Mercadona), chopped black and green olives and roughly sliced curly parsley. (Avoid the supermarket black pitted olives in jars because they have an unpleasant texture and taste).
Stir in a vinaigrette made with six parts of virgen extra olive oil to one of white wine vinegar and herbs of your choice. The dressing is even better without vinegar but if you are using it be sure it’s one of the more expensive ones. El Corte Inglés have a 25-year-old sherry vinegar that is quite superb. You can also use a thin mayonnaise with this salad.
Another good way of using hot poached florets, and one that gives a memorable contrast of textures, is to sauté them with slivered almonds.
For the florets of a medium-sized cauliflower, sauté three or four heaped tablespoons of slivered almonds in four tablespoons of butter (or more, depending on the amount of florets) and pour the contents of the frying pan over the warm florets. Mix well until the florets have a film of melted butter, season to taste with salt and butter and serve immediately.
You can buy slivered almonds at supermarkets and at the dried fruit stalls in municipal markets. The best ones are at the Gelabert stall in the Mercat d’Olivar. They keep well in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Another simple and delightful starter is made by melting four heaped tablespoons of butter in a frying pan, adding four heaped tablespoons of fresh breadcrumbs (two-day-old Majorcan pan moreno is best) and gently sautéing them until they are crisp and golden.
Stir in the juice of half a lemon and two tablespoons each of finely chopped cooked ham, chopped hard-boiled eggs and parsley. Season to taste, stir in the poached florets and continue sautéing until the florets are hot. Serve immediately.
Indian cooks also do marvellous simple dishes with cauliflower florets. If you have a book on Indian food (and ideally you should have two or three, especially if there’s a vegetarian in the family) check it out for cauliflower recipes that use yoghurt, sour cream and the usual range of Indian warm spices.