Cauliflower isn't just another cabbage cousin; it's a smart meal maker.
Its dense mass of unopened flowers makes its look almost brainy. It is "cabbage with a college education," quipped Mark Twain.
Late winter is prime cauliflower season. Recent warm weather has caused heads to mature rapidly.
High in fiber and low in calories with no fat, cauliflower has found new popularity as a starch substitute. It can stand in for mashed potatoes or fill out a restaurant dinner plate.
But now, this vegetable comes in more colors than traditional Snowball white. Orange, purple, green and spiky varieties are showing up in farmers markets, gourmet groceries and community-supported agriculture boxes.
Some look more like broccoli than cauliflower and even share the broccoli name.
Take Romanesco, for example. Often called Romanesco broccoli, it sports green stems like broccoli, but the dense head is definitely cauliflower.
"They really look like little trees, which delights children," said Suzanne Ashworth, who grows Romanesco at Del Rio Botanical in West Sacramento. "The color is amazing in the vegetable world; rather green-yellow, kind of a broccoli, but maybe a cauliflower. They're somewhere in between the two. They're more closely related to cauliflower than anything else."
These odd-colored cauliflowers come mostly from crossing cauliflower with broccoli. The neon-green heads of one hybrid is marketed as "broccoflower."
"They all cross with each other naturally in the field," Ashworth said. "They're more than cousins; they're brothers and sisters."
For her Romanesco and other fanciful cauliflowers, Ashworth planted seed imported from Italy last fall. It takes about six months for a cauliflower to mature.
"People don't run into them that often; they don't know them yet," she added of the colorful varieties. "But I think they're fun."
Chefs like cauliflower, too. A veggie chameleon, it blends with all sorts of cuisines.
"One good-size floret next to a piece of meat or main course, the whole plate is done," Ashworth said. "But cauliflower also works in meatless meals. It's great in Indian cuisine."
Cauliflower has found new fans among dieters. Weight Watchers, in particular, has promoted mashed cauliflower as a potato substitute with only one point per 3/4-cup serving.
"I never thought anything could be as warm, comforting, and delicious as mashed potatoes," wrote the Slender Kitchen blog about mashed cauliflower. "This is by far my favorite side dish, probably because it is so much like mashed potatoes. It goes with almost anything."
Raw cauliflower already is a favorite healthy snack. The new colorful varieties make great finger food, too; crunchy plain or perfect for dipping into a dressing of your choice.
Said Ashworth, "One thing for sure, they generate a lot of conversation."