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Cauliflower is the new Brussels sprout.
Cauliflower is the new Brussels sprout.

Late winter is something of a challenging time in the kitchen. The inspiration and renewal of spring are just days away, and by now many of us have done all we can with root vegetables. And Chef Jerry Pellegrino tells me that one thing that we've seen around the market these days is cauliflower, that shy, retiring wall-flower of all vegetables, whose simplicity may be its greatest virtue.

It's a modest vegetable with much to be modest about. But Mark Twain said cauliflower "is a head of cabbage with a college education". Surfing the web turns up quite a debate on the merits of cauliflower: some folks adore it, others abhor it.

Let's be positive and focus on the enthusiastic side of the ledger. There are quite a few classic approaches to cauliflower. Many recipes honor its affinity with cheese. Others love the way spiced up cauliflower bakes in the oven. It is often

steamed and then puréed, then paired with all sorts of contrasting flavors.

I went all over the Internet looking for cauliflower ideas, and here are

a few that I came up with.

A refugee from corporate America took advantage of cauliflower's dense, solid structure, and came up with roasted cauliflower "steaks" served up with a roasted grape chutney. She felt that rubbing the cauliflower with garlic made a big difference.

Quite a few recipes involve crafting a sort of couscous: working with bright flavorful ingredients (tomatoes, cranberries, dried fruit, roasted nuts) the ingredients, including the cauliflower are grated, or minced, or otherwise made tiny; you work in some olive oil and vinegar, and maybe a fine grain like bulgur wheat. It's easy and the results always look delicious.

An Australian lady called Donna likes to pop some cauliflower into the cuisinart along with carrot, zucchini, coriander, mint and parsley. The result is like a

couscous, but even more healthy. Once it's processed, you cook the blend in chicken broth until it is tender.

Melissa Sevigny, author of the blog "I breathe, I'm hungry" has engineered

an apparently major improvement on mashed cauliflower. Put off by the watery goopiness of most mashes, she decided to dry out slices of cauliflower by nuking them first in the microwave. Once that was done, she mashed them with cream, butter, Irish cheese, salt and pepper. The result was a starchy texture without the starch.

Health conscious people rave about raw cauliflower, and it makes perfect sense. The mild earthy flavor of raw cauliflower is a blank canvas for just about any salad dressing you can come up with. Dara, the Cooking Canuck, eh, published a nice dressing idea: lime juice, ginger, agave nectar and jalapeño peppers make a very

tasty Asian-style dressing.

Personally, I called on cauliflower once upon a time for a sensational dish that I first encountered in St. Martin. This is a chicken and ricotta cheese casserole that I modified to make it more tasty. The first step was to sauté some chopped up cauliflower in olive oil, cooking it long enough to get a bit of golden brown on it.

You put your sautéed cauliflower in the bottom of a small casserole dish, and cover it with a layer of sliced poached chicken breast. The poaching liquid, chicken broth and white wine, can be cooked down and added back into the dish. Pop a layer of thinly sliced chorizo sausage on top of the chicken, then cover the whole thing with

a layer of ricotta cheese. You bake it in a 350° oven for about 30 minutes. Two things happen: it gets golden brown on top, and the cheese melts into the broth making a wonderful sauce. The great thing about the cauliflower is how nicely it sops up the sauce, giving you a nice little treat at the bottom of the dish.

Al Spoler, well known to WYPR listeners as the wine-loving co-host of "Cellar Notes" has had a long-standing parallel interest in cooking as well. Al has said, the moment he started getting serious about Sunday night dinners was the same moment he started getting serious about wine. Over the years, he has benefited greatly from being a member of the Cork and Fork Society of Baltimore, a gentlemen's dining club that serves black tie meals cooked by the members themselves who are some of Baltimore's most accomplished amateur cooks.
Executive Chef Jerry Pellegrino of Corks restaurant is fascinated by food and wine, and the way they work in harmony on the palate. His understanding of the two goes all the way to the molecular level, drawing on his advanced education in molecular biology. His cuisine is simple and surprising, pairing unexpected ingredients together to work with Corks' extensive wine offerings.