A Different Kind of Fall Foliage

’Tis the season of cauliflower, which can lead to many good things.

Is it just me, or has the cauliflower been especially good this year? We’ve been eating it twice a week or more since the last week of September, as the nights have cooled off and the sun drops closer to the horizon every day. The leaves have started changing color, too, which they do when the trees give up on making more chlorophyll, leaving just the red anthocyanins and yellow carotenes to reflect the light.

Have you tried the orange cauliflower that’s started appearing in farmers markets in the last few years? The “Cheddar” variety originated, as these things must, with a random mutation found in a marsh in Canada, and has been refined through a decades-long breeding program by Rick Pedersen at the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station. Cheddar cauliflower is orange because, like those yellow leaves, it’s rich in carotenes. It’s also delicious, even more deeply flavored than the usual stuff.

I had a gorgeous cauliflower “carpaccio” once, sliced so thin as to be translucent, accenting the bizarre geometry; but I like it better cooked. There are two ways to go. One is to boil or steam the beast to accentuate the vegetable aspects. The result can be as simple as a creamy puréed soup, white enough to show off a drizzle of flavored oil but rich enough with savory sulfur compounds that even my toddler reached for more. She also loved a spectacular curry I made from a Keralan cookbook that called for toasting a teaspoon of fennel seeds in oil for a few minutes, adding turmeric and red chili for just a moment, then adding a couple of chopped tomatoes and stewing the cauliflower gently. (I had a Kumbaya moment when I realized that this is almost exactly the same as a recipe attributed to a Florentine farmer in Faith Willinger’s book Red, White, and Greens.) Cauliflower stays firm even when it’s cooked through, which makes for a nice change from a mushy curry.

The other path to cauliflower bliss is roasting, which brings out the nuttiness so the cauliflower is practically meaty. One of my favorite fall and winter pastas plays this up. About the time I put the pasta water on to boil I start pan-roasting some onions and a broken-up head of cauliflower in olive oil with salt and pepper. (The pan needs to be big enough for the vegetables to roast and not steam too much.) If I’ve timed things right, the onions and cauliflower will both be almost perfectly caramelized by the time the water has come to a boil. I’ll cook up some whole-wheat pasta (I like a small shape, like penne or orecchiette) and toss the pasta with the vegetables, some oil, and perhaps a drizzle of the pasta water, some salty cheese (feta, usually), parsley if I have some, and toasted nuts. If history is any guide, I’ll probably do the same thing next week, too.

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