Getting down to Brassica tacks: A recipe for roasted cauliflower salad

I’ve always been tickled by the pairing of decadence and duty at the Swanton Berry Farm stand at the Berkeley farmers market: sweet, fragrant, addictive strawberries sharing the table with fibrous, disrespected, and most-likely-not-addictive broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts. It turns out that this collection makes a lot of agricultural sense, as strawberries are the natural partner of Brassicas like broccoli, cauliflower, and brussels sprouts.

Chapter two of Samuel Fromartz’s “Organic, Inc.” explains the partnership in detail. Fromartz visits with Jim Cochran, founder of Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California, to see how strawberries are grown organically. Through careful observation and experimentation, Cochran discovered that members of the Brassica family (brussels sprouts, broccoli, and cauliflower are a few members) protect against the fungal disease virticillium wilt, which is a potent destroyer of strawberries. The fungus can remain viable in soil for years, just waiting for a target like a new batch of strawberry seedlings. Methyl bromide — a neurotoxin and ozone depleter — is effective at killing the fungus and therefore is used in most non-organic strawberry farms in the U.S. (its use is banned by the Montreal Protocol treaty but U.S. growers have received special exemptions to use it).

A few years later, a plant pathologist at UC Davis, Krishna Subbarao, identified what was happening. An outbreak of virticillium wilt was ravaging cauliflower fields, but adjecent fields of broccoli were unaffected. After several years of research, he discovered that broccoli carries a natural fungicide called glucosinolate. Apparently the compound feeds helpful soil bacteria which then eat the virticillium fungus. At the time of the publication of “Organic, Inc.,” the bacterium had not been identified, and for a good reason: a gram of soil might be home to 10,000 different species of bacteria, many of which are unidentified.

Thus, rotational planting of broccoli and other Brassicas with strawberries has been one of the keys to organic production of strawberries. Other techniques that Fromartz recounts include the use of predatory mites (Phytoseiulus persimilus) to reduce the population of a pest mite, planting flowers and grasses nearby to attract pest-eating insects or to draw pest insects away from the crops (the lygus bug, a strawberry-eating pest, apparently prefers mustard over strawberry) and maintaining good soil fertility by using cover crops between strawberry plantings. (The history of the commercial strawberry is also a very interesting one, involving several species of strawberry, transatlantic plant transfers and a chance meeting in Paris, as I summarized in a 2005 post at Mental Masala.)

Photo of cauliflower before it is roasted for cauliflower salad Although cauliflower is not so effective against the virticillium wilt, I much prefer it to broccoli, so here’s a tasty recipe for cauliflower. I hope it will make you appreciate cauliflower in a whole new way. The key is to roast the vegetable in a very hot oven to brown the edges, unleashing the power of the Maillard reactions.

Cauliflower comes in many varieties: the purple (shown at the top of the post), the classic creamy-white, pale green, and the self-similar Romanesco are just a few. They are similar enough that one can generally substitute for another in any recipe calling for cauliflower. Keep in mind, however, that the color will change during cooking; the purple variety typically turns brown or green.

Roasted Cauliflower Salad

Slice the cauliflower into bite-size pieces (about the size of an unshelled walnut). It is important to slice the vegetable instead of breaking off the florets so as to provide flat surfaces that will brown during the roasting. Toss with oil, sprinkle with salt, then arrange on a baking sheet. Roast in a 400 F (or hotter) oven until the cauliflower is tender and brown in places, turning once or twice so that each side touches the hot metal pan for some time, about 20 minutes or so. Set aside to cool while you make the dressing. You could steam the cauliflower in a pinch, but roasting brings out a sweetness and complexity.

Roughly chop a clove of garlic (or more) and place in a mortar along with some salt. Use the pestle to fully crush the garlic into a paste. Pour in some lemon juice, a bit of Dijon mustard, and stir to combine. Wisk in olive oil (about a 1-to-1 ratio).

Combine the dressing, the cauliflower, some capers, fresh cracked black pepper, and herbs (like parsley).

Serve warm, at room temperature, or chilled.

Alternate combinations:

  • Flavor the cauliflower with diced preserved lemon, crushed garlic and parsley
  • Try a Thai treatment using lemon juice, soy sauce, sugar, crushed garlic and crushed fresh chilies
  • Toss the cauliflower with diced tomato, grated parmesan cheese, crushed garlic, herbs and toasted bread crumbs

Inspired by a post on A Few Reservations

9 Responsesto “Getting down to Brassica tacks: A recipe for roasted cauliflower salad”

  1. Great info. I have become a big cauliflower fan over the past year. Made a really good indian-influenced cauliflower dish about a month or so ago, and really like this Mario Batali recipe for a pasta with cauliflower, mint, etc. Mark Bittman also had what sounded like an excellent cauliflower recipe, somewhat similar to this I believe, recently in his Italy blog. It had anchovies as well. So much cooking to do, so little time.

  2. Tom Philpott says:

    Great post, Mark. I, too, am a relatively recent convert to the cult of cauliflower.

  3. Janet says:

    Sounds delicious, Mark, and I’ll have to try it. Meanwhile, I was interested to learn on last fall’s Kaw Valley Farm Tour, that one farmer keeps a certain kind of bird which, sadly, I can’t remember, to keep bugs out of the strawberry patch. Evidently these birds (partridges?) will clean the beds of bugs and not nibble a single strawberry. Got to be clever, those organic farmers.

  4. Ed Bruske says:

    I roast the cauliflower at 450 degrees and don’t find any need to chop it into pieces. I toss the florets with a good amount of extra-virgin olive oil and season aggressively with coarse salt and curry powder. Roast on a baking sheet until the florets are completely cooked through. Many will be darkly etched, especially where they have been exposed to the baking sheet. A fantastic treatment that will convert many to cauliflower vegetables who weren’t previously convinced.

  5. Kimberly says:

    This winter, I became a roasted cauliflower addict convert. I roast sliced cauliflower for 15 minutes at 425 degrees, toss with a mixture of lemon juice, mustard and olive oile (essentially the same dressing as in your salad), and continue roasting for another 15 minutes. My husband and I have almost come to blows over the last couple of bites.

  6. Tia says:

    I’ve never tried roasting cauliflower before, it sound good.
    I made broccoli tonight with sesame seeds, a little sesame oil, maple and butter (steamed, then sauteed with the rest of the ingredients). It came out great, and I bet it would be fantastic with the roasted cauliflower in place of the broccoli. Thanks for the tip!

  7. Becks says:

    Thanks so much for the info on strawberries and Brassicas. We were just contemplating adding strawberries to our garden so now it looks like we’ll be adding broccoli too.

    I’ve always loved cauliflower. My favorite way to eat it is in soup form. Here’s the recipe I stick to:

  8. John La Puma says:

    That is a pretty amazing story to keep in mind next time I visit the farmer’s market. Strawberries and other thin skinned fruits are definitely worth buying organic. Cauliflower has one of the same chemicals as garlic (allicin) and it may be a factor in preventing strokes. Here is another cauliflower recipe there’s a lot more on the ChefMD website about the benefits of using organics too.

  9. That’s an exquisitely beautiful purple cauliflower! btw, I’m jealous that your farmers’ market stand looks like that right now…things are a little different here in the Northeast – though there’ve been some promising signs!