1. Food

Cavolfiore: That's Cauliflower

A Winter Gift

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White cauliflower from Campania

A head of white cauliflower from Campania

Kyle Phillips
People have been growing cabbages for thousands of years -- they're said to be among the first vegetables grown in the Fertile Crescent, and were introduced into Europe well before the birth of Christ -- and at some point farmers began to differentiate them. There are the leafy kinds, which can grow either as compact balls, for example Savoy cabbage or the green cabbage the Friulani turn into sauerkraut, or long-leafed, for example the kale that gives Tuscany's ribollita its distinctive bite.

Then there are the kinds that grow florets. Broccoli rabe, the southern staple that contributes to the Neapolitan Christmas comes to mind, as does regular broccoli, and though they are tasty neither can match the richness of a good cauliflower. Nor do they require as much work: The farmers who grow cauliflowers have to keep close watch over their plants, and when they see the heads begin to form at the tops of the stalks tie the leaves over them to keep the light out; the heads continue to grow in the dark, forming compact flowers that are blanched white by the absence of light. Cauliflowers also require greater care than many other members of the cabbage family: too much heat or cold can damage the crop, as can too much or too little water.

Much of the work involved in developing cauliflowers (Brassica oleracea L.) is thought to have taken place in Italy, though it is now very popular in northern Europe too, and huge quantities are grown in China as well. The US crop is largely Californian. In Italy about 40% of the crop is grown in Campania, while Tuscany and the Marches are also major suppliers. The season begins in October and extends until May, with a variety of cultivars coming to market as the season progresses; in addition to the classic white cauliflower there are specialty cultivars, including a lime green version grown around Rome and a purple variety grown in Sicily.

From a nutritional standpoint, all cauliflower is rich in vitamin C: A half cup will supply the recommended daily allowance. It is also rich in folic acid and potassium. On the other hand, it is poor in sodium, which makes it a good option for those on low-salt diets, and low in calories, which makes it a welcome addition to a diet. Moreover, cauliflower is rich in antioxidants, and therefore may help reduce the risk of cancer, and other research has suggested it may help prevent macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness among the elderly. In short, it's healthy.

Selecting cauliflower: The standard rules apply: unless you are buying one of the colored varieties, the florets should be a brilliant chalky white verging on cream, and quite compact. An overall grayish cast may mean exposure to light, while darker -- almost black -- spots are the beginnings of spoilage. If the florets have instead begun to separate, it is probably old and will have lost flavor. In terms of smell, it should smell crisp, with a slight leafy cabbage smell. If it smells pungent it will probably be quite bitter, and you should pass it by. Finally, if you scrape a fingernail over a floret it should feel firm and slightly crisp. If it's soft it's not good. When you get it home it will keep in the crisper section of the refrigerator for a couple of days.

Preparation: Though there are recipes that call for whole cauliflower, one generally breaks the head up into individual florets and washes them with care; the central stem is also good, as are the leaves, which are an excellent addition to vegetable soup. Raw cauliflower florets are quite nice, thinly sliced, in a salad. Recipes involving cooked cauliflower generally have one blanch the cauliflower in lightly salted water until barely fork tender, and then rework the cooked florets one way or another.

Enough Talk! Some Recipes

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