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Starters I

N RECENT MONTHS, we’ve been exploring the exotic here at Hero – ruby red party season favourites like cranberries and pomegranates – but now, deep in the depths of winter, we’re tumbling happily back to earth with the humble, yet delicious, cauliflower. Cheap,

versatile and none-more-local, it’s king of the comfort food, so good in soups and curries and stews, and so amazing drenched in a Cheddar sauce for that all-time classic, cauliflower cheese.

Cauliflower first appears with any reliability in 12th-century Arab writings, and the vegetable slowly hopscotched across Europe, cultivars modifying as it went, through the next four hundred years; today we get Italian varieties – the oldest – competing with assorted northern European versions, mostly developed in France and Germany around 1800. Though cauliflower stars in many cuisines – aloo gobi, that Indian hero of Bend It Like Beckham, is basically a spud and cauli curry – cauliflower’s core rep is as a northern European winter comfort food, one that almost makes a virtue out of being (in its most basic form) rather soft and bland.

We’ve certainly been chowing Your regular cauliflower is in season February through May (and then

again in the second half of the year, from late summer on), and the ones you want should be compact, firm to the touch, with stout, fresh-looking leaves, clean white stalks and creamy white- coloured heads – also known, slightly weirdly, as ‘curds’. Wrong ’uns are easy to dodge (avoid slimy stalks, limp yellow leaves and too many brownish spots), while more exotic varieties are great fun. You should find versions with purple or orange or green heads at farmers’ markets and the like, and they’re often more quick-cooking and delicately flavoured than the standard varieties. (Probably our favourite of these: the frankly amazing-looking Romanesco, with its oddly pointy, and distinctly lime-coloured, curds.)

Storage and prep are simplicity itself:

cauliflowers will keep for a week in the fridge, loosely wrapped (if you can

get one with the leaves still attached they’ll afford the delicate curds a degree of extra protection), and they freeze well too, if chopped into florets, washed, blanched in boiling water, drained, plunged into ice water, drained again and neatly bagged. When ready to cook (whether fresh or frozen) you want to discard the leaves and core, chop it into its individual florets, then fry, steam, roast (for a more intense flavour!), stir-fry or even eat raw. (As-it-comes cauli works well in salads, or as a nibble with dips.)

down on it for quite some time. However you’ve prepared it, cauliflower works brilliantly as a

side to meat, fish or chicken – try it with scallops or sausages, pheasant or lamb chops – or as a major ingredient in soups, curries, bakes, fritters and, of course, piccalilli.

of course! Cauliflower cheese is a total classic, either as a side or a main course – it simply depends on how much you make – and is a complete doddle to do. Just steam, boil or roast your veg until soft but not mushy (three to five minutes should do it), then make a butter, flour and milk (bechamel) sauce to pour over the top, sprinkle with grated cheese (and perhaps breadcrumbs), then pop into the oven for a quarter hour or so. (Recipes vary, of course: everyone seems to have their own way of doing it.) The result is amazing comfort food, and supremely versatile too. You can spice it up – try adding salmon, walnuts, mustard or sure-fire hit bacon – or choose to sauté your cauli, rather than boil: this is certainly the best idea if you’re keen on retaining all its groovy anti-cancer compounds.

What else does cauliflower go with? Pressed, coagulated milk, Ah yes, the health benefits! Though cauliflower, specifically, hasn’t been

especially well studied, the health benefits of the cruciferous veggie family to which it belongs – broccoli, kale and cabbage are close relatives – are clear. Full of fibre and heaving with manganese and vitamins C and K, amongst others, it’s a great detox buddy, bursts with cardiovascular, antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits, and has been shown to be effective against everything from cancer to Crohn’s disease.

9 Another benefit: as with broccoli, the spongy, nutty, rather sweet

cauliflower heads look a lot like little trees when broken up, something kids find fascinating. (It’s certainly a great boon when persuading them to eat the damn things!)

CAULIFLOWER RICE (Serves 2) Fans of the 5:2 diet will well be familiar with this dish already, but for those uninitiated, it’s a great low-cal and low- carb alternative to the white stuff. Even better, it’s a doddle to make. We like to serve ours with grilled fish, smeared with rose harissa.

INGREDIENTS 1 cauliflower 1 small red pepper, diced rapeseed oil generous handful of spinach 1 orange, peeled and segmented

METHOD – Break the cauliflower into florets and pulse in a food processor until it resembles rice/cous cous. Place in a microwave-proof bowl, cover with clingfilm and heat on high for 2-3 minutes. (You don’t need any water.) – Quickly fry the red pepper in a splash of rapeseed oil until just tender, add the steamed cauliflower rice and spinach and stir until the spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper to taste. – Remove from the heat. Roughly chop the orange segments and stir through, then squeeze over any excess juice from the remnants of the orange. Serve with grilled fish.

Go wild with all the crazy cauli colours!

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