Cauliflower – Gardening Tips from the Culinary View
as recommended by Michael Vidrine
Finally it’s almost Christmas and time for the winter solstice – the official start of winter. By this month, the warm season vegetables are out of the garden and, except for some persimmons, all the fruits have been harvested as well. Despite the cooling temperatures and short days, the garden can continue to produce lots of leafy greens, root vegetables and hardy peas. The vegetables in the cabbage family also do well now including one of the cool season standouts – cauliflower.
Cauliflower (Brassica oleracea, variety botrytis) gets its name from the Italian cavolfiore, meaning “cabbage flower” and the part we eat is indeed a flower inflorescence along with the connecting stems. Because of its resemblance to cheese curd, the parts of the cauliflower head are often also called curds. Like its relatives in the cabbage family, cauliflower is an annual plant and will flower and go to seed in one season. Left to full maturity, the cauliflower head will go to flower or “bolt”. This is a loss for the table but a boon for lots of pollinators which love these flowers. The cabbage family as well as the mustards comprise a very large group of edibles which are often lumped together as cruciferous vegetables. They get this common name from the shape of their flowers whose four yellow petals resemble a cross.
Cauliflower is a cool season vegetable which can be grown in the spring or fall in our area. Spring plantings should go in by late winter to very early spring to have time to mature before warm temperatures cause them to bolt. With our generally mild winters, I tend to most often plant cauliflower and other cabbages in the fall. Full sun, consistent moisture and well fertilized garden soil will give the best growth and production. Mulching also helps conserve moisture and keep the root temperatures moderated. Cauliflower plants are susceptible to the same insect and disease issues as other cabbage family vegetables but most can be well controlled with readily available garden pesticides. By the time really cool temperatures arrive, pest problems significantly diminish. Cauliflower can be direct seeded and young plants transplant readily. For just a few plants, many gardeners purchase transplants which can also advance the harvest by a few weeks. Whether direct seeded or transplanted, it is usually best to select early maturing varieties to beat the vagaries of weather and pest pressure. Although the cauliflower plant is quite hardy and can tolerate temperatures below freezing, the cauliflower head may be damaged by really cold temperatures and some freeze protection may be needed occasionally.
The most common color for cauliflower is white but other varieties have been developed with orange, green and even purple heads. Older varieties of cauliflower often required tying the leaves over the inflorescence to keep the white color – this is referred to as blanching. Many new varieties have been developed to have the leaves grow naturally over the flower, reducing the need for hand tying. If you look very closely at the cauliflower structure you will notice that each branch of the cauliflower down to the tiniest one resembles the entire cauliflower. Mathematicians refer to this repeating pattern as a fractal property. Yes, this will be on the quiz. Cauliflower most often produces only one head and once this is harvested the plant can be removed from the garden. Harvest the head when full sized but before the florets begin to mature. Fresh cauliflower can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks. Some of the varieties recommended for our area include Snow Crown, Alverda (Green), Violet Queen (Purple) and Cheddar (Orange).
Cauliflower is a very good source of vitamin C plus moderate amounts of a number of B vitamins and vitamin K. It is also a good source fiber and a number of phytochemicals.
Raw cauliflower can be eaten in salads or used as a dipper – it can also be blended into a hummus-like dip. It also pickles well either in a vinegar solution or fermented like sauerkraut. Cauliflower can be steamed, sautéed, roasted, fried, baked and even used as a substitute for pizza crust or rice. Since we are harvesting this vegetable when it can be quite chilly outside, I like it a lot in a creamy soup.
Although cauliflower can be a bit more finicky to grow than cabbage, it is well worth it for its delicate flavor and diverse uses. I also like that it is done after the head is harvested rather than producing forever like broccoli – a somewhat impolite guest that doesn’t know when to leave. Save some room in your vegetable garden for cauliflower next fall and enjoy.
Brazos Valley Gardener, Orchardist, Apiarist and Instructor