Spicy roasted cauliflower

A small white bowl of spicy roasted cauliflower, with a pair of chopsticks balanced on its edge. In the background we see the edges of bottles of chile paste, soy sauce, and sesame oil.

OK. Can we can talk about cauliflower? You know what I’m talking about: looks like vampire broccoli, and/or a brain, and/or a wrinkly half-volleyball? I’ve made no secret of my almost-unseemly love of cruciferous vegetables (broccolis, cabbages, choys, turnips and rutabagas, arugula, most cooking greens… see, you love them too). And for the most part, that’s a universal love. All those sharp, mustardy, sulfurous flavors are like candy to me.

Except for the cauliflower.

Chunks of cauliflower in various stages of cutting-apart. Poor sad cauliflower. It looks like the boringest brains ever.

Presently, cauliflower’s having a bit of a moment, due to its malleability as a low-carb replacement. We see cauliflower ‘rice’, cauliflower ‘mashed potatoes’, cauliflower ‘pizza crust’. And that’s all interesting. But for me, growing up in the 80s and 90s, cauliflower has always been the pallid, tasteless left-behinds on a vegetable tray. I remember a family friend loved raw cauliflower, which as a child I never could understand. (I frankly still can’t.)

Small chunks of cauliflower in a metal bowl, drizzled with olive oil. The olive oil is almost shockingly yellow against the pale cauliflower.

And so for a very long time, I ignored cauliflower completely. Sometime in the late aughts, though, the now-sadly-defunct Restaurant Widow blog reviewed a local pita joint. And in and among her rapturous descriptions of the falafel and schwarma sandwiches, Lisa gave a shoutout to the cauliflower salad, which stopped me in my tracks. Here was a writer whose opinions I deeply respected, going on about… cauliflower? Really?

A collage: and uncooked pan of cauliflower, paired with a cooked one. I love a good before&after collage; it's like when a TV cook pulls the already-cooked cake out of the oven.

Well, she was right. It’s a great salad. I’ve never properly recreated it, because it turns out to involve deep-frying the cauliflower, and deep-frying is usually a little above my laziness threshold. (Though if you really want me to get on that — let me know.) But in the midst of trying to figure out how to get the cauliflower so, so good, I stumbled on roasting it. And while roasting is always a magical process, here the results were almost unbelievable.

Spicy roasted cauliflower in a small white bowl on the counter, chopsticks digging in for a piece of goodness

Roasting cauliflower utterly transforms it. Gone is the weird crunchy-styrofoam texture, the ghostly appearance! Gone the odd stink that isn’t quite sulfurous, but more simply sad! Suddenly apparent, the sugars buried inside the little florets! Roasted cauliflower is sweet and rich at the same time, yielding to the tooth but still with enough of a chew that it feels viscerally satisfying. It’s a cliche to say so, but: it’s golden-brown and delicious.

Spicy roasted cauliflower in a plastic tub, labeled with a handwritten piece of masking tape — you can eat it straight out of the fridge!

And if you toss it with a trio of strongly-flavored condiments — soy sauce, chile paste, and sesame oil — it still manages to stand up, so that the flavorants magnify the inherent delights of cauliflower rather than masking them. I spent too many decades hating cauliflower, but I make up for it all winter. If you’re a cauliflower-hater, too, this might just be the method that reforms you.

Spicy roasted cauliflower, chopsticks digging in, and you can see the flavoring agents in bottles behind: chile paste, soy sauce, sesame oil

Spicy roasted cauliflower

If you think you don’t like cauliflower, this may well be the recipe that proves you wrong. The cauliflower undergoes a sort of alchemy in the oven, transforming from a sad crunchy mutant into a show-stopper snack or side dish. Tossing the cauliflower with a trio of condiments elevates the flavor even further, making this a dish that’s hard to put down.

Ingredients

1 or 2 heads cauliflower (2 to 3 pounds), separated into bitesize florets
2 tablespoons vegetable or olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp soy sauce
1 tsp chile paste
1 tsp sesame oil

Directions

Preheat the oven to 500°F.

Toss the cauliflower with the oil and salt, and roast on a sheet pan for 25-30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until very tender and deeply browned in spots.

Toss the roasted cauliflower with the soy sauce, chile paste, and sesame oil. Serve hot, room temp, or even cold.

Options

Honestly this is more like “serving ideas” than “options”: I eat these golden-brown wonders over rice for breakfast. I toss them in salads. I’ve served them as a side dish for a fairly traditional meat-and-vegetables meal. I’ve frequently eaten them out of their container standing in front of the fridge in my bathrobe. They’re great as a room-temp hors d’oeuvre (be mindful when separating florets of keeping them in eye-pleasing shapes). I’m sure you’ll come up with others!

Surprisingly, I’ve never subbed in broccoli/romanesco/broccoflower, but it should work. The transformation wouldn’t be as striking for any of those, but I say that only because I like them more in their raw forms!

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