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Groundwork: Cauliflower, a cabbage patch doll

Three weeks after sowing, these seedlings of Early Snowball cauliflower are ready to be separated and planted in their own four-inch pots for a month in the greenhouse before going into the garden. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

The cabbage clan provides some of the great (if unfairly maligned) characters in the vegetable plot. Some are obvious, like the various cabbages themselves (smooth leafed, savoyed, red, early, etc.) and the lovely broccoli plants and Brussels sprouts. There are the Chinese and Japanese cabbages, which come into their own in the fall, and the turnips, kohlrabi, collards and rutabagas. But the one that might be the most difficult to grow is the cauliflower, which is a plant harvested for its immature flower stems. The clusters are called curds.

Recipe Included

Undue stress can cause the plant to fail. Often, the heads never get beyond a certain size or don't form at all, or sometimes they rot before maturing.

This might have readers racing out to the supermarket, but the allure of the homegrown cauliflower, apart from its singular flavor, is the challenge. Plant geeks love challenges.

How do you avoid that stress? Well apart from the fundamental value of good soil, organically enriched and dug deep, cauliflower will thrive if it is given even moisture and picked before the heat of summer sets in.

I though that last year's cold and wet spring would be great for cool season plants like cauliflower and lettuce. Well, the lettuce did well, but the cauliflower gave up the ghost, even in raised beds where the drainage is good, and even when other members of the cabbage clan, called brassicas, lapped it up.

Cindy Brown at Green Spring Gardens says that with attentive gardening you can count on one good cauliflower year every three. This seemed like pretty rotten odds to me, but I haven't grown cauliflower and don't have the full sense of the reward of getting a blade to that perfect curd in early to mid-June. I defer to Cindy's optimism and methods. Most varieties are white, though there is an orange-yellow one named Cheddar and Graffiti, which has purple curds. Unlike purple bean pods, it keeps its color with cooking, more so with stir frying than boiling. "It's purple, neon purple," says Cindy, all enthused. (Calm down Cindy, it's just a cauliflower.)

Cauliflower seeds: Just stick 'em in seed-starting soil and watch 'em grow -- with the help of lights and water, of course. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

Part of the success with cauliflower is to start it in February or early March from seed (transplants store-bought in April can be potbound, which will add to their woes).

The crew at Green Spring started one batch (of Early Snowball) on Feb. 4; it is ready to be potted in four-inch pots. They started some more (of Snowball and Snow Crown) just late last week, and the seeds sit now waiting to erupt under fluorescent lights.

Old-time gardeners used to gather the leaves as the curd was maturing and cover the head with them. This a technique called blanching because the lack of sunlight chases away the last of the chlorophyll. Modern varieties don't need this step, though some gardeners still swear by it for producing the sweetest cauliflower heads.

Seed-started cardoons, parsley and leeks going gangbusters in the greenhouse. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)

I took a look in the greenhouse to see how the other early starts were coming along, and apart from a bit of algae growing with the leeks due to over zealous watering, they are all doing fine. This reinforces, however, the idea that seedlings should be grown in moisture-retentive but extremely well-draining soil mixes to avoid rotting.

Anyway, the cauliflower seeds are safely sown. They are in safe hands, and if 2010 is the year of the cauliflower, the pros and volunteers at Green Spring will be the ones to pull it off. But in gardening for the table, it's always good to hedge your bets.

"We started kohlrabi, too," said Cindy. "Everybody should be starting kohlrabi. It's a lot easier than cauliflower."

-- Adrian Higgins

Roasted Cauliflower With Shallots. (Cynthia Brown)

Roasted Cauliflower With Shallots
4 servings

Roasting releases the sweetness hidden deep inside tight, white cauliflower florets.

Adapted from Judy Zatsick, gardener at Green Spring Gardens in Alexandria.

1 head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds, cut into 3-inch florets)
3/4 cup shallots, cut into thin slices
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon water
Freshly squeezed juice of 1 lemon (2 or 3 tablespoons)
Freshly ground black pepper
Leaves from 1/4 bunch flat-leaf or curly parsley, chopped (1/4 cup)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with aluminum foil or a silicone liner.

Arrange the cauliflower florets and shallots on the baking sheet in a single layer, then sprinkle with the oil and water; toss to coat evenly. Roast for 30 minutes or until the edges of the cauliflower and shallots have browned.

Sprinkle the lemon juice over the top and season with salt and pepper to taste. Garnish with the parsley and serve hot.

Per serving: 121 calories, 4g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 7 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 119 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar

By Adrian Higgins  |  February 22, 2010; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Groundwork , Recipes  | Tags: Adrian Higgins, Cindy Brown, Groundwork, recipes  
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