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Cauliflower: Cinderella for Christmas

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I don't know if it's the strange moon-rock-like appearance, or perhaps the fact that overcooking results in a bitter and unappealing mushiness, but cauliflower has always been the under-appreciated step-sister in the cruciferous vegetable family. Upright stalks of broccoli get to dine with prime steaks, and common cabbage is considered indispensable with corned beef on St. Patty's Day, but where is the love for their lumpy white sibling? Unless inundated in melted cheese, cauliflower has been shunned by the populace at large.

Which is a shame, because properly prepared, it is toothsome and delicious; and like the other members of the Brassica family, it is loaded with health benefits for young and old alike.

Two of the top nutrients are the phytochemicals Sulforaphane and Indole-3-carbinol, both of which function on a very basic level. The sulforaphane is especially intriguing, as it is released not in digestion but in the mechanical action of chopping or chewing the florets. Research suggests that this compound offers protection against tumor development at a cellular level, thereby providing an early defense against cancer formation. Indole-3-carbinol (or I3C) is an anti-inflammatory component that can operate at the genetic level, and thus is able to fight inflammatory damage at an early stage. And studies show that I3C in conjunction with sulforaphane acts as an anti-estrogen, intensifying the cancer-fighting properties of both.

But the anti-carcinogenic and anti-inflammatory benefits to be found in cauliflower are not limited to these two compounds; there is a wide array of elements that taken together provide enormous assistance on both counts.

The antioxidant brigade is led by Vitamin C, followed by dogged foot-soldiers including beta-carotene, beta-cryptoxanthin, quercitin, ferulic acid and kaempferol, all of which not only fight cancer but assist the body in its detoxification activities. Studies have linked regular consumption of cauliflower-containing diets to protection against numerous cancers, including colon and prostate, breast and ovarian.

The stars of the I3C-led anti-inflammatory posse are Vitamin K and alpha-linolenic acid (ALA), which help regulate the body's inflammatory response and control molecular communications. These elements are especially vital to sufferers from such maladies as diabetes, Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. And of course, reduction and prevention of inflammation can do only good things for your cardiovascular system as well.

So obviously, it's time for you all to lift up the lowly cauliflower from the chimney ashes, dress it up in a lovely gown, and invite it to the dinner ball, right? Your improved health will thank you for it, and hopefully the recipes here will persuade your taste buds that this seemingly homely veggie really is a Princess after all...

Perhaps the rehabilitation of the cauliflower should begin with a trip to your local farmers market this winter. Because if all you know of cauliflower is that plastic-wrapped lump resembling Frankenstein's brain to be found piled up in your nearest chain grocery store, you're in for a startling surprise...

First of all, consider color: did you know that the reason most cauliflower is white is because at an early age, when that big head was just a wee bud, the leaves of the plant were tied up over it to protect it from the sun and keep it white? And yes, there are a few "self-blanching" varieties that are naturally white, like 'Early Tuscan' and 'Self Blanche' (duh); but there are many more, such as 'Snow White' and 'Candid Charm' that require a little assistance to maintain their visual purity.

But white is only the familiar beginning. Consider 'Cheddar', which is, yes, orange. Then there's 'Green Goddess' (color obvious) and 'Graffiti', which is purple - the result of the same anthocyanin to be found in red wine. And my personal favorite is a Romanesco type named "Veronica", which resembles nothing so much as one of Madonna's bizarre pointed brassieres in the 1980's! Each of these has its own delicate shadings of flavor, and makes a stunning presentation on your dinner plate.

So get out there and hunt down some unfamiliar specimens and carry them home triumphantly. Choose a head with no spotting or bruises; the buds should be tightly compacted, and it should feel heavy in your hand. You can store it in the crisper bin of the fridge, nestled in an open bag, for up to a week - though it's best to use it as soon as possible. Don't cut it until you're ready to cook and eat; and no boiling please - steam it or roast it or eat it raw to preserve the highest levels of nutrition.

Christmas Cauliflower Soup w/ red pepper puree

This visually stunning starter, with its red pepper puree "poinsettia", makes a delicious and festive holiday treat...

3 tablespoons blood orange olive oil*
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 medium cloves garlic, minced
4 cups low-sodium organic chicken broth
2 teaspoons microplaned orange zest
1 large head organic cauliflower, cut into florets
1 ripe pear (preferably Anjou or Taylor Gold), peeled, cored & chopped
Salt & pepper to taste

1/2 cup roasted red bell peppers
1 tablespoon good olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 tablespoons chopped pistachio nuts

* available at Whole Foods and some specialty stores

In a large heavy-duty saucepan, heat orange olive oil over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 4 minutes. Add garlic and cook for another minute or so. Add broth and orange zest, increase heat and bring to a boil. Add cauliflower and cook until florets are no longer crisp but not soggy, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat, add pear. Puree in batches in blender, return to pot, and keep warm until ready to serve. (May be refrigerated for later use, and gently reheated.)

For red pepper puree: In a food processor, puree red peppers with olive oil and lemon juice. Transfer to small saucepan and gently warm. (Add a little water if it's too thick.)

To serve: Ladle soup into bowls. To make the "poinsettia": using a small spoon, place a tight circle of six round dime-size dollops of the red pepper puree in the center of each bowl. Using the back tip of the spoon, draw out each dot toward the edge of the bowl, creating six "petals" of the flower. Sprinkle a few bits of the chopped pistachios in the center of the flower, and serve - carefully!

Serves six.

Roast Indian Cauliflower

Serve this simple preparation with some lentils and steamed carrots, and you have a light but satisfying vegetarian repast...

1 large head organic cauliflower, cut into florets
ΒΌ cup light olive oil (I use Greek for this)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon cracked black pepper
Salt to taste

Pre-heat oven to 375.

Place cauliflower on a foil-lined baking sheet. Drizzle evenly with olive oil and sprinkle with cumin, coriander & black pepper. Roast until cooked through but not soft, about 15-20 minutes. Add salt to taste and serve. (And the foil lining makes clean-up a snap!)

Serves four.

[A version of this post appears in my "Eat Smart" column in the December issue of Better Nutrition Magazine.]