For low-carb dieters, a head to count on

Cauliflower used as substitute for potatoes, rice, popcorn

October 27, 2004|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Three days into their low-carb diet, Carolyn Beachy made her husband, Sam, a gorgeous meal: grilled salmon with beurre blanc accented with ginger and soy; a tossed salad and mashed something.

"He looked at it. He looked at me. He knew something was up. He tasted it and said, `This is pretty good,' " recalls Beachy, a Chestertown floral designer and instructor. "And I was like: `Thank God.' "

The mystery guest that showed up on Sam Beachy's dinner plate was cauliflower, which is reaching almost iconic status in low-carbing circles. How else to explain the vegetable that can sub quite nicely for potatoes, rice and even popcorn?

Mashed cauliflower, or fauxtatoes as it's been dubbed, has gone mainstream almost overnight. Hyatt Hotels serves it with beef short ribs and Ruby Tuesday offers creamy mashed cauliflower as one of 20 low-carb menu items. Even restaurants at the top of the food chain - like Daniel in Manhattan and Spago in Los Angeles - feature it regularly. There's a frozen brand now, too, ImiTaters.

While fauxtatoes may have put cauliflower back into the culinary consciousness, the real drama for this once-ignored vegetable is that it is turning up in so many new recipes being created by today's low-carb chefs.

"If people are hesitant about cauliflower because of the way they had it in childhood - forced down their throats - it's time to reconsider," says executive chef and low-carber Karen Barnaby, author of The Low-Carb Gourmet (Rodale Books, $35), due out next month. "Its potential is amazing."

Barnaby calls cauliflower "the chameleon vegetable" because it can substitute for potatoes in so many recipes - from baked potatoes to potato salads. But it's also got firepower that goes beyond spuds. Barnaby uses it as a thickening agent in cream soups, for instance. Or she grates it in a Chinese-style stir-fry. And she makes a terrific parmesan-crusted cauliflower.

"In terms of low carb and having fun with a vegetable, cauliflower is the one I've always liked," says Barnaby, executive chef of the Fish House in Vancouver, British Columbia. "The taste is just so great."

Cauliflower, now selling for about $2 a head in local markets, is also good for you. It's very low in sodium and has no fat, saturated fat or cholesterol. It does have potassium, calcium, vitamin C, fiber and iron. And like its cousins, broccoli and cabbage, it's recognized for its cancer-fighting benefits. Cooked cauliflower also has 5 grams of carbohydrates per cup versus 31 grams of carbs for potatoes.

Cauliflower is even coming on strong as a snack food - not just eaten raw with a dip but as a fill-in for popcorn. The cauliflower popcorn on the Mrs. Dash Web site (www.mrs seems to be causing a lot of chatter in particular. "Diced into small bits and baked for a long time, it's great," says Barnaby. "It's something small to nibble on. It can fulfill that urge."

So how did cauliflower - once described by Mark Twain as "nothing but cabbage with a college education" - get such a bad rap? Overcooking, which can make it smelly, and a lack of imagination.

"It's always been: `Here's your overcooked vegetable with a little bit of butter and salt on it. Think of it as something that's next to something more interesting.' But there's no reason not to make the vegetable the interesting piece," according to Dana Carpender, a best-selling low-carb cookbook author whose new book, 500 More Low-Carb Recipes (Fair Winds Press, $19.95), is scheduled to hit stores this month with - count them - 32 cauliflower recipes. "I've found a lot of people are just stunned by all the different things I've done with cauliflower."

Carpender has used cauliflower plenty as a potato alternative. "I call it the great fooler," she says. "It's very convincing." But more "nouveau," she adds, are the recipes that use it in place of rice.

To do that, Carpender puts raw cauliflower through the shredding blade of a food processor, then cooks it lightly in a microwave. A half-head should be microwaved six to seven minutes on high. The cauliflower doesn't taste like rice but the texture can pass for it well enough to use as a risotto, as fried rice, as a bed for stir-fry or mixed in a goulash.

"We're a meat and cauliflower kind of family," says Carpender, author of Lowcarbezine!, an online newsletter. "I rarely go to the grocery without picking up a head."

Cauliflower actually dipped in popularity last year as dieters, watching their carbohydrate intake, swore off eating things that are white, according to Maggie Bezart, a spokeswoman for Ocean Mist Farms, a California grower that produces almost two million cartons of cauliflower a year. But this year, Ocean Mist has increased its acreage because retailers are seeing heightened demand.

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