Cauliflower is the New Kale: How This Year’s Superfood is Taking Over Honolulu
This versatile, low-carb veggie has risen from side dish to star.
Photos: Steve Czerniak
In neat rows on a half-acre plot in Wahiawā, blooms of bright white, purple and orange cauliflower heads peek out of thick, green leaves. It’s March, the end of the growing season for this cool-season crop, which is not commonly grown in Hawai‘i.
Researchers at the University of Hawai‘i are hoping to change that.
Jensen Uyeda, an extension and outreach specialist at UH, experimented with 12 varieties of the cruciferous vegetable here, to evaluate the potential for production in the Islands.
He hands me a vibrant purple head, the color so intense it’s almost unnatural. This is the Graffiti variety, he tells me. There’s an orange cauliflower called Cheddar, a slew of white ones—the most popular hue—and a lime-green one called Vitaverde.
“My objective here is to find an alternative crop for [Hawai‘i] farmers that’s easy to grow and has a high value,” Uyeda says.
Moku Kitchen’s vegetable roasted plate with chili-roasted corn, butternut squash, cauliflower and hearts of palm
A versatile, low-carb veggie, the oft-neglected cauliflower is finally getting some love. Google cauliflower recipes and you’ll get more than 28 million results. Chefs are serving roasted cauliflower, cauliflower soup, cauliflower rice, cauliflower mash, cauliflower-crust pizza, even cauliflower ice cream.
In 1997, the famed chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten opened his three-Michelin-starred restaurant, Jean-Georges, in New York City. He made cauliflower the silent star of his seared scallops with caper-raisin-sauce dish, which is still on the menu today. And when celebrated chef Dan Barber of Blue Hill in New York City created a cauliflower steak with cauliflower purée, it put the flower-budded cabbage varietal solidly on the foodie map.
It’s been called the new kale.
Cauliflower is a cruciferous vegetable that belongs to the same genus and species (Brassica oleracea, if you’re keeping track) as kale, broccoli, cabbage, collard greens and Brussels sprouts, all enjoying recent popularity. This veggie family is a favorite of people trying to cut carbohydrates, to embrace clean-eating or paleo diets, or just because.
“I definitely think it’s more popular now,” says Lucas Wooden, executive chef at Bills Hawai‘i, who tosses cauliflower into his smoker at home. “Cauliflower, to most people, is scary. They think it doesn’t have a lot of flavor or you have to do a lot to it. But, in all honesty, it has a lot of flavor. You just have to bring it out.”
We’re seeing cauliflower more and more on menus here—and not just as a side dish or garnish. At Bills, you can order cauliflower fritters and tofu yellow curry ($18). The florets are dunked in a beer batter, then deep fried until crispy and golden. Since the tofu is soft and the curry is saucy, the fritters add the right amount of crunch to the dish while helping to calm down the curry’s spiciness. “It really brings all the flavors together,” Wooden says.
At Vino Italian Tapas & Wine Bar, chef Keith Endo has been playing with a crispy cauliflower dish ($12) for about three years. The veggies are cooked just enough to maintain some crunch, then served with a house-made aioli spiked with cumin, pickled red cabbage and brown butter spiced with zaatar, an intensely aromatic Middle Eastern spice blend.
“We’ve evolved the dish to where it is now, and it’s still going as strong as ever,” Endo says. “I’ve always known vegetables were gonna be a hit and not take a backseat to the more familiar proteins.”
The cauliflower fritters and tofu yellow curry at Bills Hawai‘i
Chefs love the versatility of cauliflower, compared to other one-note vegetables. It can be roasted, steamed, mashed, charred, pickled, sautéed, puréed or grilled.
It can even transform into something completely unexpected.
Like chocolate pudding.
David Lukela, chef de cuisine at Beachhouse at the Moana, was judging a culinary contest at Kapi‘olani Community College when he ran into his childhood friend, Lauren Tamamoto, a research chef in KCC’s culinary arts program.
She handed him a bowl of what looked like chocolate pudding.
“Try this,” she said to Lukela.
“What is it?”
“Just try it.”
He did—and his suspicions were right. Chocolate pudding. “It’s made with cauliflower,” Tamamoto told him.
Lukela was blown away—and then he immediately went back to his kitchen and made it himself. He blended cauliflower, heavy cream, cocoa powder, sugar and vanilla and chilled it. The result: a silky, smooth pudding that tasted nothing like cauliflower. (See recipe below.) He put it on the dessert menu at Beachhouse the following week.
“It’s unique and it’s super mind-blowing,” Lukela says. “The applications and uses [of cauliflower] are so plentiful.”
He, like other chefs, get their cauliflower from the Mainland. He would prefer locally grown. But, so far, only a few local farmers have tried to grow the notoriously challenging crop. The vast majority of cauliflower that winds up on grocery-store shelves and in restaurant kitchens is from Salinas Valley, California, which has a 10-month growing season with a moderate climate, perfect for growing cauliflower.
In Wahiawā, about 1,100 feet above sea level, four of the 12 varieties that were tested thrived, though the growing season is much shorter than in California. But it grows. And local chefs would buy it.
“Local is always the best,” Lukela says.
The challenges are numerous: a short growing season, pests including diamondback moths and imported cabbage butterflies, and heat. It can also be labor intensive, especially with the white varieties. According to Uyeda, heat stress affects the cauliflower’s ability to form large white heads. Farmers fold the leaves over each head and hold them in place with rubber bands. This shields the head—which is also known as the curd—from the sun, resulting in brighter white heads. If not, the cauliflower turns yellow. Sunburned, Uyeda calls it.
Vino’s crispy cauliflower with cumin aioli, pickled red cabbage and zaatar brown butter
The color doesn’t affect the taste, but consumers—and chefs, too, who are concerned about presentation—want pure-white florets. Changing the perception will be difficult.
“It’s edible, but it’s off-white,” Uyeda says. “People don’t want it.”
Priscilla Carbajal, a chemist who recently started her own farm, Vida Farms, in Waimānalo, started growing cauliflower last season. She grew Cheddar and Graffiti for their gorgeous colors, and sold them via Farm Link Hawai‘i, at farmers markets and through her Community Supported Agriculture box. She harvested about 50 heads, losing roughly 20 percent of her initial planting.
“It’s super challenging,” says Carbajal, 40, who also grows peppers, tomatoes, beets, bananas and carrots. “The pests are the worst.”
But the response she got for her cauliflower was overwhelmingly positive. So much so, she’s planning to increase production.
“People don’t like cauliflower that much and relate it a lot to broccoli,” says Carbajal, who cooks her cauliflower in a béchamel sauce. She also tosses cut-up florets in mac ’n’ cheese for her two sons. “I thought if people were drawn to it by the color, why wouldn’t they try it and eat it? They’re just so beautiful.”
Want to wow your friends at the next potluck—or get your kids to eat veggies? Turn the vitamin-rich, low-calorie cauliflower into a smooth, chocolate-y dessert. Consider this a no-guilt way to indulge in chocolate pudding cups. You’re welcome.
5 c. cauliflower
1 c. coconut milk
½ c. water
1 ½ c. white sugar
2 ½ T. cocoa powder
Rinse cauliflower, boil until soft (about 15 minutes). Blend cauliflower, water and coconut milk in a blender until smooth. Add sugar, vanilla extract and cocoa powder and blend. Chill for at least three hours. Serve.