Alan Tangren: Getting ahead with winter produce | TheUnion.com

Alan Tangren: Getting ahead with winter produce

Alan Tangren
Columnist

Dear Alan: Are there any local vegetables that are in season right now? I see asparagus and bell peppers at the natural food stores. Even I know those have to come from far away.

Alan: I hear you. Produce choices, especially from local growers, seem limited in winter. I'm sure grocery stores feel like they have to have a full range of produce to attract customers. But we have many local options to enliven our winter meals.

The so-called cole crops, all members of the mustard family, love the kind of cool, moist conditions we have all winter long. Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower and mustard greens are in their prime in the cool season.

Right now I'm thinking about broccoli and cauliflower. They are easy to prepare, and offer a big reward in terms of flavor and nutrition.

Broccoli — big heads, typically dark green with well-defined texture.

Sprouting broccoli or broccolini — looser, smaller clusters of bigger flower buds on longish stems, dark green or purple varieties.

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Broccoli rabb — leafy green shoots like turnip greens with large flower buds.

Cauliflower — pure white, golden orange or bright purple heads with very fine texture; flower buds are fused together, called curds.

Romanesco — conical, chartreuse green heads with fine textured florets arrange in a spiral.

Tips & tricks for broccoli & cauliflower

If you have whole heads of broccoli, cut off the stem just below where it starts to branch. Use a paring knife to peel the stem and cut into slices to cook along with the florets.

Cauliflower is a little more difficult, but you can cut out a cone-shaped piece of the base to release the florets. That thick stem can also be peeled and cooked

Broccoli and cauliflower can then be divided into small florets with a little of the stem attached and served raw with your favorite dip.

Or, blanch in salted water, or steam, and serve hot with melted butter or olive oil, salt and pepper. I like to peel even the small stems of broccoli florets.

If you are cooking ahead to serve cold or reheat later, lay the almost cooked pieces out on a kitchen towel to cool. Then refrigerate uncovered, but try to use soon so they don't develop a strong flavor.

A dressier presentation for cauliflower or Romanesco is to serve it hot with brown butter, chopped parsley, sieved egg and toasted buttered breadcrumbs.

Broccoli and cauliflower can be sautéed, either cooked or raw, with a bit of olive oil. Add some chopped garlic at the end of cooking. Let cauliflower get a bit brown for extra flavor.

Broccoli and cauliflower can be roasted in a 375 degree Fahrenheit oven, by themselves or with other cold season vegetables such as carrots, turnips, parsnips and potatoes, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper.

For broccolini or raab I usually just cut off and discard some of the stem and sauté the remainder in olive oil with salt and pepper until tender, adding minced garlic at the end. Add some water if they start to scorch before they are done.

All types of cooked broccoli and cauliflower can be a base for pasta, with the addition of garlic, parsley, olive oil and Parmesan, or used on pizza with fontina or mozzarella.

I found my all-time favorite cauliflower preparation in Paris, at a tiny restaurant in a wine store, where customers had to lean over your table to pick bottles off the shelves. It was opened by the former pastry chef of a famous Michellin three star restaurant who wanted a less stressful life.

Chef Bertrand cooked beautiful three-course set menus for a few people each evening. This time the first course was a creamy cauliflower soup, served tepid, in a tureen at each table, with little bowls of crème fraîche, crispy bacon, buttery croutons and chopped chives to add to taste.

Of course it was unforgettable. I've made it many times since.

Cauliflower Soup Les Papilles

Serves 4 to 6

1 medium cauliflower (about 2 pounds)

1 medium onion

2 Tablespoons unsalted butter

Water, vegetable or chicken stock, about 4 cups

1/4 cup cream or crème fraîche

Salt

Nutmeg

Cut out the central stem of the cauliflower and break the florets apart. Peel the stem and cut into ½-inch pieces. Peel the onion and slice thin.

Place a soup pot over medium heat and add the butter. When the butter is foaming, add the onion and cauliflower. Reduce the heat and stew the vegetables for 15 minutes, adding water as necessary to prevent browning.

Add water or stock to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook, covered, until vegetables are very tender, about 25 minutes.

Purée in a blender and return to the soup pot. Reheat gently and add the cream. Season with salt and freshly grated nutmeg.

Serve hot or room temperature with bowls of crème fraîche, crispy bacon bits, buttered croutons and snipped chives for each person to season at will.

Chef Alan Tangren spent 22 years as a chef in the kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, eight of those years spent as the Chez Panisse forager. He teaches cooking classes and directs monthly Chef's Tables at Tess' Kitchen Store, 115 Mill St. in Grass Valley. Learn more at http://www.tesskitchenstore.com. Contact him at alan.tesskitchen@gmail.com.