Cauliflower Is the New Kale
For the past four years, chef Jason Weiner has offered a Meatless Monday menu at his restaurant, Almond, in New York. The idea, he says, is to urge omnivores to accept vegetables as a main course. To do this, he relies frequently on a versatile veggie almost everyone likes: cauliflower. “Cauliflower is this blank slate. It has the ability to take on any flavor, kind of like chicken,” Weiner says. Over the years, Almond’s Meatless Monday menu has included chicken-fried cauliflower, General Tso’s cauliflower, and Buffalo cauliflower topped with Roquefort dressing, which was so popular that it was promoted to the regular menu.
Weiner isn’t the only chef experimenting with the pale crucifer. “It’s absolutely everywhere,” says Elena North-Kelly, managing editor at the James Beard Foundation, a culinary arts organization. “Cauliflower’s moved from the boring side dish, and now we’re seeing it take on a starring role.” Girl & the Goat in Chicago tops it with pickled peppers. Ox in Portland, Ore., covers it in tahini sauce. At the Florence in Savannah, Ga., a cauliflower head is “whole-roasted” and served in a cast-iron skillet.
The vegetable’s ascendancy may be why one of the first changes B&G Foods Inc. made after it bought the brand Green Giant from General Mills Inc. in 2015 was to expand its cauliflower line to include mashed cauliflower, a frozen cauliflower-and-sweet-potato medley, and cauliflower “rice.” Whole Foods Market Inc., which has seen double-digit growth in nationwide sales of the vegetable two years in a row, offers similar products from its 365 brand. Both companies say they’re seeing sales climb evenly across the country, rather than clustered around more foodie metropolitan areas, as has been the case with past trends.
The boom is thanks to converging culinary trends: low-carb, gluten-free, and healthful eating, which often means vegetarian. “It’s similar to what we saw with kale a few years ago,” says Erik Brown, global produce buyer for Whole Foods. And the vegetable’s popularity is reflected on BuzzFeed’s Tasty channel, which posts dozens of DIY options—cauliflower mac and cheese, pizza with cauliflower crust, etc.—to Facebook feeds, where they’ve been viewed hundreds of thousands of times each.
Health food crazes in the U.S. aren’t always practical: Acai berries are grown in South America, and good luck to any Northerner looking for a ripe avocado to top her toast in winter. But cauliflower grows everywhere, from New York to Michigan to California, with staggered growing seasons, so it’s almost always available. It’s also cheap. And most people already know it, if only as a conduit for ranch dressing on crudité platters.
For cauliflower converts, there are two types of recipes: ones that use the vegetable as is, and ones in which it replaces meat or bread. Cauliflower-as-staple-substitute recipes range in authenticity, from that Buffalo cauliflower (definitely not a chicken wing, but still spicy and delicious) to cauliflower grilled cheese, in which grated cauliflower “bread” patties supposedly hold the sandwich together but in reality crumble to pieces (at least for me).
In April, during a seasonal revamp of Almond’s dinner menu, Weiner decided to discontinue the Buffalo cauliflower. To his surprise, customers complained. A few threatened to stop eating at the restaurant. One regular he knows left a scathing comment card urging him to “rectify this disaster.” “I got the message,” Weiner says. A week later, the Buffalo cauliflower was back.