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Where to get cauliflower starts

Many local nurseries, farmer’s markets and plant sales have starts for sale now.

Seeds are available at local stores or by mail from the following seed companies:

Fedco Seeds: fedcoseeds.com/seeds, 207-426-9900

Franchi Seeds (Seeds of Italy): growitalian.com, 785-748-0959

Johnny’s Selected Seeds: johnnyseeds.com, 877-564-6697

Seed Savers Exchange: seedsavers.org, 563-382-5990

Territorial Seed Co.: territorialseed.com, 800-626-0866

Cauliflower, as we have known it, has been endlessly white. Many of us have grown up with it presented as a rather lackluster and boiled-to-death member of the vegetable family, often featured as a mandatory and healthy accompaniment to the artery clogging activity of steaks and roasts. I suspect that most of us as children grew skilled in artfully concealing its soggy, repugnant forms under bits of mashed potato and fat trimmed from the steak edge.

But good news: Cauliflower has lately been revealed as one of our most versatile vegetables.

It additionally has been reborn in a variety of brilliant and super-healthy hues with colors and textures so vivid it is hard to believe they are real.

Recent hybrids are brilliant purple and brilliant green, as well as a deep orange variety — all absolute visual jewels in the garden and on the plate. These new, brightly colored varieties are as easy to grow as any other cauliflower, and the time to plant all of them (including the white varieties) is now.

A simple internet search for current cauliflower recipes reveals a mouth-watering array of delectable dishes that go far beyond the basic traditional approach of eating it raw or boiled or steamed into an overcooked and translucent state. The scope of newly realized uses is really unparalleled in the vegetable world. Many of these recipes appeal to our base need for comfort food but spare us the carbohydrates.

Try baked cauliflower steaks, Cauliflower-crust pizza, Cauliflower mac ‘n’ cheese, Cauliflower-carrot cheesy tots, buffalo cauliflower, creamy mashed cauliflower potatoes, and cauliflower cake. In the more light and healthy camp there are cauliflower-rice tabbouleh and cauliflower couscous to name just a few options.

These dishes are usually made with the traditional white varieties — of which there are many — and involve baking the cauliflower instead of boiling or steaming it, to help reduce some of the water and improve the texture of dishes.

Many of the recipes that use cauliflower as a substitute for pasta, grains, bread, or meat require the stiff curds that the white, orange and purple varieties have.

Of the new colored types, the green varieties curds are not quite as tightly packed as the white (they are a broccoli/cauliflower cross) and may not rice or bake with the same texture, but they still have a superb flavor.

Cauliflower is a member of the cruciferous vegetable family that includes mustard greens, turnips, kohlrabi, radish, arugula, kale, brussel sprouts, cabbage and broccoli. Cauliflowers’ ancestor is the wild cabbage, Brassica oleracea from the Mediterranean region.

Cauliflower was developed from cabbage, which has been grown since the Greek and Roman times. Cauliflower originated in Cyprus, and spread to Italy and many other countries like Turkey, Syria, Egypt, Spain, India and northwestern Europe.

Cauliflower has been popular in Italy and France since the 16th century. Except for a yellow variety developed in Cornwall in the early 19th century, they have been traditionally white. The colored varieties are new hybrids, created from traditional vegetable breeding. They are not GMOs.

Cauliflower in any color is a healthy vegetable. It is high in fiber and vitamins C, and K as well as folate, (a B vitamin) and manganese, as well as many other nutrients present in less substantial, but still nutritionally important quantities.

Though cauliflower is a nutritious vegetable in general — the colored cauliflowers have different nutrients or more of them than than the white varieties, and are more flavorful and lacking any bitter qualities.

Orange varieties have a high beta-carotene (vitamin A) content. Purple varieties have high amounts of anthocyanins — powerful antioxidants. The green types are high in vitamin C and other antioxidants.

In hotter areas, planting starts now to have heads mature before the summer’s heat begins. In cooler areas, it is not too late to plant them from seed if this is done very soon. Note if the plant variety descriptions specify plant preferences for cooler climates or have heat tolerance. In the hottest areas, plant a short-season variety and use starts so heads will mature before the summer heat really develops.

Orange: A rich, pale orange rather than bright orange. This color is not as brightly colored as the purple and green varieties. The flavor is mild and slightly sweet, the texture creamy.

Cheddar hybrid: 58 days to maturity. Pastel orange heads. Color intensifies when cooked.

Orange Burst hybrid: 80-90 days. Delicious, rich flavor. Color is retained when cooked.

Flame Star hybrid: 62 days. Pastel orange. Good heat resistance and tolerance to stress.

Purple Graffiti hybrid: 80-90 days. The most brilliant, deep purple heads — each a work of art. Has to be seen to be fully appreciated. A must. Heat-tolerant and better able to withstand drought. Color fades when cooked, but adding a tablespoon of vinegar or lemon juice to the cooking water helps retain color.

Purple of Sicily (OP): 80-90 days. (OP means open pollinated). This is really a purple broccoli. Sweet and rich flavor, heat tolerance and insect resistance. We grew this variety on sandy clay soils in Saudi Arabia and it was outstanding. It produces huge heads of mid-purple.

Green: First offered in 1988, green cauliflower is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. Its flavor is more sweet and mild with a nutty overtone. Heads are more firm and less crumbly than brocolli.

Green Macerata (OP): An Italian variety with large, heavy heads. Delicious flavor and late maturing. Retains green color when steamed. Fairly early.

Vitaverde hybrid: 71-76 days. For both spring and fall production. Large fluorescent, sweet and mild green heads. Amazing combined with the deep purple varieties. Firm texture, not ricey or grainy — more like a broccoli.

Romanesco (OP): 90 days. This is called a either a broccoli or cauliflower, but the heads are very cauliflower-like in texture. If you like cosmic vegetables, this is a must. Not only are the heads bright chartreuse, they are composed of tightly clustered individual swirling rosettes. Heads are dense and very heavy. The flavor is nutty, buttery and rich. Truly an amazing plant. There are hybrid selections like Veronica (85 days) and OP varieties that are less uniform. Originally from Italy.

Romanesco Italia (OP): Superb flavors, heavy, very dense heads. A must. Long season.

Puntoverde hybrid: 78 days. A very reliable, uniform Romanesco for both spring and fall planting.

Veronica hybrid: 78-85 days. Nutty, sweet and flavorful, with pointed heads.

Kate Frey’s column appears every other week in Sonoma Home. Contact Kate at katebfrey@gmail.com, freygardens.com.

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