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Have We Reached the Cauliflower Tipping Point?

It’s a cauliflower world, we’re just living in it. But have cauliflower wings taken things to their logical nutritional conclusion?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and if you are, please get out from under it!), you’re aware that supermarket shelves are under siege by cauliflower. In the last year alone, my wife has purchased Bird’s Eye Cauliflower Wings for the dinner table on more than one occasion, and later followed that up by acquiring some Green Giant Cauliflower Hash Browns. In the latter case, we’re not really talking about much of a nutritional difference when compared to what’s being replicated (2 calories per gram as opposed to 1.5), so you begin to wonder if all of the recently promulgated promotion of cauliflower as an all-purpose substitute has stretched itself to the limits of its usefulness. 

To help us answer that question, I recruited Kristin Donnelly, a former recipe editor and the former well-being column editor for Food & Wine. Her first cookbook, Modern Potluck, also had a strong emphasis on meatless recipes. In other words, she’s an ideal person to set us straight about what has made cauliflower so popular, and where its true culinary value lies.

How would you personally go about preparing cauliflower wings in your own kitchen?

Buffalo chicken wings are often fried, and you can fry cauliflower. It’s super delicious because it gets crunchy and a little bit creamy on the inside. But if you don’t want to fry it, which I understand because it can be kind of a mess and also less healthy, you can roast the cauliflower at a pretty high heat. Add oil, cornstarch and garlic powder before roasting it. The cornstarch helps to create more of a crust. It provides a little more crunch, but it also gives you something for the sauce to adhere to. Cornstarch is a natural thickener as well, so once it’s tossed with that sauce it becomes kind of a glaze. 

The Buffalo wing sauce is usually made with Frank’s Hot Sauce and butter. You can replace the butter with coconut oil if you want it to be vegan, because the coconut oil is rich like butter. It also has a sweetness, which goes really well with the cauliflower, and adding the hot sauce takes away the coconut flavor.

I roast it for 20 minutes, pull it out, then toss it with hot sauce and no additional oil. Next, I roast it again for 10 minutes. That gives the sauce a chance to meld with the coconut oil and the starch and form a glaze. Then it blisters a bit. That’s the method I use. However, if you order cauliflower wings at a bar, they’re probably going to fry it.

When we start talking about frying cauliflower, are we venturing into territory that’s fundamentally unhealthy? Is that defeating the purpose behind using cauliflower in everything?

I’m no nutritionist, but I’m assuming from a caloric point-of-view, it’s still a lot lower when you use cauliflower instead of a chicken wing. So from that standpoint, if you just want to consume fewer calories, the cauliflower version is going to be your better option. Cauliflower also has a lot of vitamins that the chicken doesn’t necessarily have. With those two points alone, I think the cauliflower wings are still worthwhile, but I also think most people are regarding cauliflower wings as a treat and not the way they’re preparing their cauliflower every day. Also, when you roast it, you’re only dealing with a tablespoon of oil as opposed to a whole lot of oil.

What do you think is driving the push toward things like cauliflower wings? When people are trying to replicate food items that typically have meat in them, is it about making the transition easier for people attempting to move away from consuming a lot of meat, or is it more about giving people who never want to eat meat an opportunity to enjoy some of the flavors that are typically enjoyed by carnivores?

I think it’s both. I have a friend who’s been a vegetarian for more than 20 years. 

She loves Buffalo cauliflower and doesn’t like meat. She just loves the flavor of hot sauce and fat together. That’s an irresistible combination because it’s a little tangy and a little spicy, and the fat helps to soften the edges of both of those things. At the same time, if someone is trying to transition away from eating too much meat, it’s something that’s familiar. Getting presented with a whole head of cauliflower might not be that appealing, but being presented with some Buffalo cauliflower might make a person more inclined to give it a try.

How did you become so familiar with cauliflower?

There was a series of booklets I wrote a few years ago called Short Stack editions, and I did one on cauliflower. I already loved cauliflower — eating it roasted or just as a vegetable for what it is — but that book did let me explore all the different uses. Cauliflower is still a rising star, but I feel like when I go to the health food store half the things are made with cauliflower nowadays. It can be very delicious that way. Like cauliflower pizza crust is a big thing, and I had a recipe for that in the Short Stack edition. I get my daughter pizza bites, and the outer casing is made with cauliflower. Cauliflower is really versatile and part of that is because it has such a mild flavor. 

If you’ve ever seen the way the plant grows, it’s a huge plant. It has a huge stalk, lots of leaves and then this one head of cauliflower. Sometimes when I think about the vegetable from that point-of-view, the part that’s frequently used — the head — is such a small percentage of the plant. It makes me wonder if it’s really so great that we’re using cauliflower in all of these processed foods.

Are you asking that question from a sustainability standpoint?

Yeah, but I think it’s more philosophical. The way it grows in some ways is really special. It has this amazing shape, and I love to do things with cauliflower that showcase that shape — like cutting it into steaks is another way that people use it, or even in the wing version, you get to have fun with the shape. But when you’re pulsing it into rice or turning it into pizza dough, you’re losing some of the fun aspects of cauliflower. Once I learned more about how cauliflower grows and how the part we use is so small, it left me wondering and hoping that the leaves of the plant could also be used.

It sounds like you’re saying part of the value of the cauliflower is in its presentation and its recognizability as its own entity, and if you crush it or blend it into another shape, you’re missing out on the fun. Is that accurate?

Exactly! After I did all of these other things with cauliflower, I came back to appreciating it for what it is more than anything else.