Embrace cauliflower's complexity

Simply sautéed, with a bit of butter and olive oil, chopped onion and seasonings of your choosing, riced cauliflower makes a healthy and delicious “rice bowl” base; top with such wholesome offerings as a poached egg, sliced avocado, edamame, pea shoots, and roasted chickpeas (recipe included for Riced Cauliflower Salad With Roasted Chickpeas). Then drizzle on a bit of dressing of choice (vinaigrette or creamy).

I came to the vegetable lovers party late. It wasn’t until my college years — and the impact of one very clever Cooking 101 professor who had a way with produce — that I discovered vegetables could actually be wonderful.

One of the first veggies embraced by this newly minted recruit to the green cuisine team was actually a white variety. Cauliflower. Which is a tip for any parent trying to influence the picky palate of a child: start with the less challenging produce and work your way slowly to the stronger-flavored funny-looking stuff.

Anyway, through my entire adult life, I’ve been on board with cauliflower — in all its forms, from raw to roasted — be it pureed in soups, steamed with potatoes and onions, or in its more trendy guise of late, “riced.”

That’s right. Riced. As in teeny-tiny pieces, basically the shape of rice; cauliflower florets tumbled about in a food processor, producing a fluffy pile of rice-like crumbles.

Of course, that is definitely where the comparison between the two foods should stop. Cauliflower, no matter how altered in form or function, will still be cauliflower. Your eyes may say “rice” when gazing upon a lovely plate of riced cauliflower, laced with melted butter and fresh garlic. But one bite and your brain will quickly clarify the situation: Cauliflower. Not rice.

But the simple fact that riced cauliflower will never be rice has not stopped a whole lot of people from jumping on the riced cauliflower bandwagon. Indeed, such devotion helped boost cauliflower’s popularity so much that it was actually named the 2018 Trendiest Vegetable of the Year. Not based solely on riced cauliflower, of course. Cauliflower consumption in all its forms has risen dramatically over the past few years, thanks in great part for the low-carb diet craze taking place in our country. Nielsen data found that cauliflower has been popping up on ingredients lists in 36 different grocery categories, from dried pasta to frozen pizza crusts, and that sales for those packaged cauliflower products grew 71 percent in 2017.

People are definitely intrigued. Why just last year, “cauliflower rice” jumped 60 percent in U.S. search queries, according to Google Trends.

When I asked a few friends to share their favorite ways with riced cauliflower, here’s what they had to say:

•Julie from Fresno turns it into Chinese Fried Rice.

•Chef friend Heather from Portland: “It works great in Tabouli.”

•Robin from Corvallis sautes it with olive oil and garlic for a simple side dish.

•Victoria from Pasadena and Instagram blogger (@homesmithla) admits to eating it all the time as a rice substitute. “Just make sure to really keep it al dente,” she adds. “And don’t hold back on the seasoning.

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“Also, my favorite way to make (riced cauliflower) is to cut it into florets, throw them in the blender with enough water to cover. Do a few quick blasts until it looks like rice, then strain through a fine mesh sieve. So easy!”

If you are only just beginning to consider what kind of relationship you want to have with riced cauliflower, here are a few additional points to ponder:

•Riced cauliflower needs very little cooking time, and definitely none of it needs to be in water, which will just make it soggy, mushy and develop a strong, less desirable flavor and aroma.

•Riced cauliflower will benefit from a quick saute in a bit of olive oil or butter. But don’t over-do it (see previous “Riced cauliflower needs very little cooking time...”). Just a few minutes over medium heat will do the trick. Sauteing with flavorful seasonings will complement the mild, nutty undertones in the cauliflower. I lean toward curries and cumin flavors, but even simple flavors such as green onion or finely chopped sweet red peppers produces a lovely offering.

•Don’t be tempted to cook up a big batch of “cauliflower rice” for a week’s worth of cooking. You will be disappointed because the longer the dish sits in your refrigerator, the stronger smelling and tasting it will become. It’s so easy and fast to use, just plan on preparing it as needed.

•And finally, because it can’t be said enough: Don’t let anyone tell you that riced cauliflower is rice. It isn’t! It won’t absorb liquid like rice, and it doesn’t have the neutral flavor profile of rice. Just enjoy it for what it is: a healthy, low carb option that simply tastes delicious just by being itself.

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Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis food writer, artist and author of “Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit,” and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at janrd@proaxis.com or find additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.