- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 28, 2009

I used to wonder why there seemed to be “cauliflower cuisines” and “broccoli cuisines”: cauliflower at northern European, Middle Eastern and Indian eateries, and broccoli in American, Italian and Chinese dishes. This seems to be changing, at least in some restaurants in the United States. Lately, I’ve been coming across broccoli at Indian restaurants and cauliflower at Chinese establishments.

Broccoli and cauliflower are easy to find all year round, so we don’t think of them as seasonal and feel no particular urgency to buy them; after all, they’ll be there next week and next month, too. Yet now is the time to enjoy these flavorful vegetables. In the cold season, cauliflower heads are the biggest and have the whitest, firmest florets, and broccoli is at its best. So are their cousins, Chinese gai-lan or Chinese broccoli, and Italian broccoli rabe. Besides, their prices tend to be better.

There are all sorts of tasty ways to use these nutritious veggies, from fancy French timbales to Italian sautes with garlic and capers to spicy Indian stews. They cook rapidly and require very little prep time before you put them in the pot - no repeated rinsing, very little trimming. Use any cooking technique you like - boil them, steam them, stew them, saute them, fry them, and they’ll be ready in minutes.

Members of the broccoli family are very forgiving in the pot - indeed, they are practically foolproof. Broccoli and cauliflower taste good cooked briefly so they’re crisp-tender, or braised at length in dishes like curries so they slowly absorb the spices. When cauliflower and broccoli are very fresh, you can also eat them raw with or without a dip.

To prepare them quickly, simply cook them for a few minutes in boiling water until just crisp-tender and serve them sprinkled with vinaigrette or moistened with tomato sauce or Chinese mushroom sauce. For a speedy gratin, sprinkle cooked florets lightly with a little olive oil, then with grated cheese, bread crumbs or finely chopped nuts, and brown them in the oven.

At the market, pay attention when selecting these cruciferous vegetables. I like to turn cauliflower heads upside down to check the base so I can choose heads with the largest proportion of white florets and the fewest ribs. Try to pick cauliflower that’s pure white, with no trace of brown or black. The newer members of the family - broccoflower or green cauliflower, orange cauliflower and purple cauliflower - should have even coloring. They taste like cauliflower and can be used to vary the color of familiar dishes.

Broccoli florets should be compact and dark green, not yellowish. When preparing broccoli bunches, don’t discard the stalks.

They are delicious and tend to be most tender in the winter. You can trim off their skin with a paring knife, slice them and cook them along with the florets. If you’re in a hurry, you can use broccoli sold as “broccoli crowns,” which consist only of florets.

Italian broccoli rabe, sometimes called rapini, broccoletti or broccoli di rape, looks quite similar to Chinese broccoli. It, too, has mostly leaves and few florets. Choose both kinds the same way - the leaves should be very fresh and not wilted. Broccoli rabe has a bitter taste that’s pleasant when the vegetable is cooked properly. My favorite way is to boil it briefly, then saute it.

Refrigerate the vegetables unwashed in a plastic bag. Often they are sold in perforated bags, and these are the best type to use. Otherwise, keep them in an open plastic bag. It’s best to use Chinese broccoli and rapini within three days; cauliflower and broccoli will keep up to five days.

To prepare these vegetables, rinse them well. Cut off cauliflower’s ribs and green leaves; sometimes I use them in vegetable broth.

Both cauliflower’s core and broccoli’s large stalk can be cooked along with the florets; cut off the tough peel with a knife, then slice the stem.

Broccoli rabe with garlic

Although some recipes call for sauteing broccoli rabe raw, if you’re not used to it, I recommend starting with this simple Italian way to cook the vegetable: Cook it in boiling water, then saute it with garlic and hot pepper flakes in extra virgin olive oil. The boiling mellows the vegetable’s bitter flavor. Serve it as a side dish with grilled or roasted chicken or meat or with rice, or toss it with pasta.

Makes 2 to 4 servings as side dish.

1 pound broccoli rabe

1 or 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped

1/8 teaspoon hot pepper flakes

Salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut ends off broccoli rabe stalks. Cut stalks in 1- to 2-inch pieces. Add broccoli rabe to a large saucepan of boiling salted water and boil uncovered over high heat 4 to 5 minutes or until crisp-tender. Drain in a colander, rinse with cold water and drain well.

Heat oil in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and pepper flakes; saute 10 seconds. Add broccoli rabe, salt and pepper, and saute until heated through, tossing gently. Serve hot.

Roasted red pepper sauce

Serve this sauce as a colorful complement for simple boiled cauliflower - or pasta with vegetables.

Makes 4 or 5 servings

2 red bell peppers, roasted and peeled (see note below), or purchased

2 medium shallots, minced

1 1/2 teaspoons fresh thyme or 1/2 teaspoon dried leaf, crumbled

1/2 cup dry white wine

1 cup chicken or vegetable broth

4 tablespoons butter, divided into 4 pieces

Halve peeled peppers and discard seeds and ribs. Drain well and pat dry. Puree in a food processor until smooth.

Combine shallots, thyme and wine in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil about 2 minutes. Add 1/2 cup stock and boil until liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Stir in pepper puree and remaining 1/2 cup stock. Reheat before serving.

Just before serving, bring sauce to a simmer. Reduce heat to low. Stir in butter, 1 piece at a time. Remove from heat as soon as butter is absorbed.

Roasted peppers: Put peppers on broiler rack about 4 inches from heat. Broil peppers, turning every 4 or 5 minutes with tongs, until pepper skin is blistered and charred, for a total of about 15 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cover tightly, or put in a bag and close bag. Let stand 10 minutes. Peel using paring knife. Discard top, seeds and ribs. Be careful; there may be hot liquid inside pepper. Drain well and pat dry.

Indian cauliflower tomato sauce

Spicy but not overwhelming, this easy-to-make Indian-inspired sauce is great with pasta or rice. It uses ingredients available in most good markets and does not require grinding whole spices. Serve it over hot cooked spaghettini, vermicelli or penne, or with Basmati or brown rice, bulgur wheat or other grains. If you prefer hot food, leave in some or all the jalapeno seeds and ribs.

Makes about 6 servings, enough for 12 to 16 ounces pasta.

3 or 4 tablespoons vegetable oil or olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

4 teaspoons minced peeled ginger root

4 teaspoons minced garlic

1 to 3 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeds and ribs discarded, minced

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1/2 teaspoon turmeric

1 teaspoon ground coriander

2 28-ounce cans whole or diced tomatoes, drained

Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste

2 cups small cauliflower florets, raw or cooked

3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed or cooked

1/4 cup chopped cilantro

Heat oil in a heavy medium saucepan over low heat. Add onion and saute 7 minutes. Add ginger root, garlic and jalapeno peppers, and saute 1 minute. Add cumin, turmeric and coriander, and saute, stirring, 1/2 minute. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper, and mix well. Bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, crushing whole tomatoes occasionally with spoon, about 20 minutes.

If cauliflower is raw, cook it uncovered in a medium saucepan of boiling salted water about 3 minutes; it should still be crisp. Drain well. Add cauliflower and peas to sauce, cover and cook over low heat 5 minutes or until just tender. Stir in cilantro. Taste and adjust seasoning.

Note: Wear gloves when handling jalapeno peppers if you are sensitive.

Faye Levy is the author of “Feast From the Mideast” and “Healthy Cooking for the Jewish Home.”

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