Coaxing flavor out of cauliflower

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You consider yourself a vegetable aficionado, buying Brussels sprouts by the stalk, munching beets of every stripe and crunching roasted kale chips with abandon.

But cauliflower confounds you.

You drench it with hollandaise or cheese sauce or ignore it completely, invoking Mark Twain's quip, "Cauliflower is nothing more than cabbage with a college education."

Too bad. You're missing out on some good eating.

"I love cooking cauliflower. I think it's multidimensional," says Angelo Sosa, "Top Chef" contestant and author of the new "Flavor Exposed: 100 Global Recipes From Sweet to Salty, Earthy to Spicy" (Kyle Books, $29.95).

"The texture is beautiful, very silky and smooth, so white and so earthy. And that beautiful cauliflower flavor is just magical," he adds. "After you cook it, you get a lot of nutty flavor and nutty aromas coming through."

So how does he coax flavor from cauliflower?

"I definitely would make something like a cauliflower flan or a panna cotta," says Sosa, chef/partner at restaurants Social Eatz and Anejo Tequileria in New York. "If I want more of a Mediterranean or Italian or Moroccan feel, maybe I'd macerate some beautiful golden raisins in some riesling or Japanese vinegar to contrast that."

He'll roast cauliflower or cook it in milk (sometimes soy milk so the nuttiness of both comes through) or make

a playful "couscous" by breaking cauliflower into florets, pulsing in a food processor to a granular texture then cooking in a splash of water until just tender and dry. "You could add pine nuts, sliced almonds, dates," Sosa says. Just don't overcook it. "The goal is to retain its color."

And its flavor. It's "earthy, but I wouldn't say that it's equivalent to something like coffee, which is extremely earthy. … It would be in the realm of a parsnip, very light, very earthy, very sweet."

Sosa, whose book tackles sweet, salty, smoky, bitter, sour, spicy, earthy, nutty, umami in all sorts of pairings, understands the challenge of combining flavors, especially to amp up mild vegetables, from cauliflower to carrots.

When people are hungry, they "tend to say, 'I'm in the mood for something sour,' 'I'm in the mood for something spicy,'" Sosa says. "Home cooks need to figure out what kind of flavor they like."

His suggestion for learning what flavors meld well and how to balance them?

Begin with an unseasoned carrot soup and divide it into three portions.

"With one, I would take sweet, sour, salty. The carrot could be the sweet, the salty could be prosciutto and the sour could be Meyer lemon.

The next one could be earthy, nutty, maybe I add some sesame," he says. "See what your palate gravitates to." And play with flavors.

Cauliflower and Almond Puree

Prep: 20 minutes. Cook: 15 minutes. Servings: 6

Adapted from chef Angelo Sosa’s “Flavor Exposed.” He suggests serving it with lamb or any red meat with Middle Eastern flavors. The almonds accentuate the vegetable’s nuttiness and “are a beautiful texture and contrast for the puree.”

2 pounds cauliflower, cut into florets

1½ cups whole milk

¼ to ½ cup water

1 cup blanched whole almonds

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 to 3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine the cauliflower, milk, water and almonds in a large saucepan. Heat to a boil over medium-high heat; reduce heat to medium. Cover; simmer, stirring occasionally, until cauliflower is tender, 10 minutes.

Carefully transfer mixture to a blender or food processor, working in batches if necessary; puree. Add butter, sugar and salt; blend until very smooth. Reheat if necessary before serving.

Per serving: 245 calories, 19 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 16 mg cholesterol, 15 g carbohydrates, 8 g protein, 369 mg sodium, 4 g fiber.

Cauliflower With Ginger, Garlic And Green Chilies

Makes: 3 to 4 servings

Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s “Quick & Easy Indian Cooking.”

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

½ teaspoon each cumin seeds and yellow mustard seeds

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1-inch piece of peeled fresh ginger, finely sliced

4 cups cauliflower florets

1 to 3 fresh hot green chilies

¾ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon garam masala

⅛ teaspoon cayenne pepper

freshly ground black pepper to taste

¼ cup water

Heat tablespoons vegetable oil in a wok over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add cumin seeds and yellow mustard seeds. As soon as seeds begin to pop (a few seconds) add garlic, fresh ginger, cauliflower florets, and hot green chilies. Stir-fry until cauliflower is lightly browned, 5-7 minutes. Add salt, garam masala, cayenne pepper and freshly ground black pepper to taste; gently toss with the florets. Add water; cover wok and cook, 2 minutes.