- The Washington Times - Monday, January 5, 2004

Cauliflower is one of my favorite vegetables. No need to hide it under a thick coat of cheese. I could eat a big bowlful of florets simply boiled in water with a little salt.

I even love it raw, as a snack, or slipped into a Middle Eastern salad of chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and onions.

This versatile vegetable is a member of the healthful cruciferous family, which nutritionists advise eating several times a week. Naturally, whatever you cook tastes best when you have a good, fresh cauliflower. Choose one that is creamy white, without dark spots.

If the florets look flat and cut rather than rounded, that is an indication that the cauliflower is getting old and the brown edges have been trimmed off. Leave such a cauliflower at the market. You can refrigerate cauliflower, unwashed, in a plastic bag for up to five days.

One of the most scrumptious cauliflower dishes I know is my mother-in-law’s cauliflower fritters. To make them, she dips lightly cooked florets in a batter and fries them. The aromatic, deep-golden florets were absolutely delicious.

When she made them, I would stand near the stove with my husband and his brothers, and we would eat the hot treats as soon as they came out of the pan, without even taking our plates to the table.

Because most of my mother-in-law’s recipes were from her native Yemen, I assumed this was a Yemenite dish, but she actually learned the technique of dipping the florets in an egg-and-flour batter from an Eastern European neighbor in Israel. She then added Yemenite soup spices to the batter. This currylike blend of cumin, turmeric and black pepper made a wonderful difference. Often, she cooked the fried florets in tomato sauce, but we preferred them plain so we could enjoy the texture of their coating.

At an Indian restaurant some years later, I tasted cauliflower fritters called pakoras. They reminded me of my mother-in-law’s cauliflower and also of falafel. Like her fritters, pakoras are dipped in batter. However, this batter is made with chickpea flour instead of wheat flour and is flavored with a variety of spices, fresh cilantro and, often, hot pepper.

The chickpeas and cilantro give these tasty appetizers a falafel-like taste. Also like falafel, pakoras are deep-fried and crunchy and taste best straight from the pan. Julie Sahni, author of “Indian Regional Classics: Fast, Fresh and Healthy Home Cooking” (Ten Speed), recommends serving them with yogurt salad or chutney.

When I wanted a cauliflower appetizer that was easier to make than fritters, I decided to make cauliflower pancakes by emulating my mother-in-law’s example. I started with a standard potato-pancake recipe and made it with mashed cooked cauliflower instead. Then I added cumin and turmeric, as in my mother-in-law’s cauliflower fritters, and cilantro and hot pepper as in Indian pakoras. The resulting cakes were golden orange and aromatic and had a wonderful flavor.

Cauliflower cakes have advantages over batter-dipped cauliflower. You can saute them in a frying pan instead of deep-frying them, so they require much less oil and are easier to handle, and they are convenient for parties because you can cook them in advance and reheat them in the oven. Serve them with yogurt flavored with mint or cilantro, with tahini (sesame-seed butter), or with a touch of hot sauce or hot pepper relish on the side.

Curried cauliflower pancakes

Serve these savory pancakes as an appetizer with yogurt, labneh (strained yogurt) or sour cream for dipping, and garnish them with cilantro sprigs. Fresh mint chutney and spicy mango chutney are also good accompaniments. The pancakes are great with grilled fish, lamb or chicken.

1 large (about 2 pounds) cauliflower, divided into medium florets

Salt and freshly ground pepper

5 tablespoons vegetable oil or more, if needed, to fry pancakes

1 medium onion, finely chopped

2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped

1 teaspoon curry powder

½ teaspoon ground cumin

¼ teaspoon turmeric

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

¼ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes or pinch of cayenne pepper

5 or 6 tablespoons bread crumbs

2 large eggs or 3 egg whites

Cook cauliflower in a large pan of boiling salted water uncovered over high heat about 10 minutes, or until very tender.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet, add onion, and cook over medium-low heat about 10 minutes or until onion is soft and golden brown. Add garlic, curry powder, cumin and turmeric, and saute, stirring, for 30 seconds.

Drain cauliflower well. Mash it with a fork or chop it in a food processor, leaving some small pieces. Transfer to a bowl. Stir in sauteed onion mixture, cilantro and hot red pepper flakes or cayenne. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add 5 tablespoons bread crumbs and eggs or egg whites, and mix well to make a workable dough. If dough seems too liquid, add remaining 1 tablespoon bread crumbs.

Heat 3 tablespoons oil in a large heavy skillet. Take 1 heaping tablespoon cauliflower mixture in your hand, and press it to make it compact. Flatten it to a cake about ½-inch thick.

Make 4 or 5 more cakes, and fry over medium heat for 3 minutes on each side or until brown. Turn carefully, using a wide pancake turner.

Repeat process with remaining batter, adding more oil to pan if it becomes dry. Drain on paper towels. Keep warm in 300-degree oven while frying remaining pancakes. Serve hot.

Makes 6 servings.

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