Why the humble cauliflower packs powerfully nutritious punch
The vegetable is gluten-free and diabetic-friendly, with a low glycaemic index. So why don't we eat more of it, asks Jeanette Wang
Imagine eating bangers without mash or curry without rice: palatable, but tough. As popular and effective low-carb diets are, the truth is a meal without a starchy carb - rice, noodles or potatoes - often doesn't satisfy.
Serene Loong, who describes herself as "in my late 30s with middle-aged metabolism", knows the feeling well. Tired of not fitting into her clothes, in 2010 she embarked on a low-carb diet and lost 10kg in three months. But once she reintroduced carbs to her plate, "the weight came back with a vengeance" and the scale returned to 58kg.
"To restrict certain foods like mashed potatoes or rice serves to make us want it more," says Loong. "So I thought, why not make mash or rice from the stuff you're supposed to eat more of anyway, such as vegetables?"
Scouring the internet for recipes, she eventually found an alternative: cauliflower. Chopped, cooked and blended with a bit of cream cheese or butter, the cruciferous vegetable resembles and tastes like mashed potatoes - but with fewer calories and fat, and about a third less carbs.
The only trouble was preparing and cooking the cauliflower mash took at least 20 minutes. Taking inspiration from instant mashed potatoes, Loong decided to develop a similar product using cauliflower.
After a year of research and development with a food technician in Singapore, Zero Cuisine was born. Loong says each serving of her instant cauliflower mash - just add water - is made from 300 grams of fresh cauliflower and contains 60 calories, 15 grams of carbs, one gram of fat and five grams of fibre.
That's 63 per cent fewer calories, 38 per cent fewer carbs, 92 per cent less fat and 150 per cent more fibre than traditional mashed potatoes made with cream and butter.
Zero Cuisine is scheduled to hit grocery stores next month. In the meantime, Loong is selling samples via international crowdfunding site Indiegogo (igg.me/at/ZeroCuisine) in a bid to raise US$10,000 to keep her business going.
It's certainly a good time to be dealing with cauliflower. Food trend experts have named it a hot commodity for 2014: the Canadian Press last month crowned it "the new kale" (last year's veggie superstar) and Baum+Whiteman, a US-based food and restaurant consultancy, identified cauliflower as one of 30 buzzwords in food this year.
"Cauliflower is extremely versatile and, in many ways, can be treated like a piece of protein," says chef Matt Abergel, owner of Yardbird, a bustling yakitori outlet in SoHo that serves up sweet and spicy Korean fried cauliflower. "It's not difficult to find good quality cauliflower and it's relatively inexpensive."
Gluten-free and diabetic-friendly with a low glycaemic index, the vegetable is a good substitute in dishes that call for traditional carbs or protein. At Washington's downtown Cedar Restaurant, cauliflower is grated into rice-sized pieces and cooked in a similar way to risotto. In California's Superba Snack Bar, a thick slab of grilled cauliflower is served - and said to be as satisfying - as a T-bone steak.
Still other chefs have used cauliflower to make pizza crust, hash browns and popcorn, giving the pale, pungent and unpopular vegetable a new lease on life.
"I grew up with a lot of vegetables and cauliflower was one of them, so I have no prejudice on its flavour profile or its smell," says Richard Ekkebus, culinary director of the The Landmark Mandarin Oriental hotel in Hong Kong, whose signature dish is sea urchin in lobster jello with cauliflower, caviar and crispy seaweed waffle.
"In a lot of food cultures, smelly ingredients such as cheese or stinky tofu are seen as absolute delicacies.
"What I like about cauliflower is its versatility in utilisation: raw, finely chopped and then just blanched for a couscous-like texture, caramelised in a skillet and roasted till fondant, or cooked thoroughly as a purée. They're all worthy preparations."
In spite of its recent rise in the culinary world, cauliflower has always ranked highly in health and nutrition.
It's a good source of vitamin C, folate, potassium and fibre. According to the USDA National Nutrient Database, 100 grams of raw cauliflower - about one cup of chopped pieces - contains just 25 calories, two grams of protein, 0.3 grams of fat, five grams of carbohydrate, two grams of dietary fibre and two grams of sugars.
Cauliflower is part of a family of cruciferous vegetables - including broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale - that are rich in organic compounds called indoles, which have a positive impact on cellular health.
Diindolylmethane (DIM) is one such compound that has shown to support the immune system and help keep hormones, especially oestrogen, in balance.
Breast, prostate and other areas of hormone-related cellular health rely on this balance. DIM has been proven to increase the good kind of hormone metabolites and decrease the kind that can derail health.
DIM may also protect normal tissues in cancer patients during radiation therapy and may prevent or mitigate sickness caused by radiation exposure in healthy people, according to a study on mice by Georgetown University published in October in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Cruciferous vegetables are also rich in another compound, sulforaphane, which has shown in tests on rodents to inhibit some cancers either induced by carcinogens or arising from genetic make-up.
Johns Hopkins researchers have also found that the compound helps prevent the severe blistering and skin breakage brought on by the rare and potentially fatal genetic disease epidermolysis bullosa simplex.
Many people shy away from cauliflower, however, because of its smell. Playing around with cooking methods can help you enjoy the vegetable.
"Cauliflower is very dense and has a low water content, so cooking it over high heat with a good amount of fat is best," says Abergel. "Cauliflower also takes well to strong flavours, like spice and vinegar. Personally, I like to deep fry or caramelise cauliflower."
Try seasoning cauliflower with the curry spice turmeric: the combination has shown potential for the treatment and prevention of prostate cancer, say researchers at Rutgers University.
Google "cauliflower recipes" and you won't be short on ideas. The 10 best cauliflower recipes named by The Guardian in an article last year include cauliflower and pear bake, cauliflower omelette, a French cauliflower gratin, and roasted cauliflower tart with oat-walnut crust and lemon herb filling.
The worst way to cook cauliflower is boiling, say University of Warwick scientists. In their 2007 study, boiling appeared to have a serious impact on the retention of cancer-protective substances called glucosinolates found in cruciferous vegetables.
After boiling for 30 minutes, cauliflower lost 75 per cent of the phytochemical. Steaming for up to 20 minutes, microwaving for up to three minutes and stir-frying for up to five minutes showed no significant loss of the compound.
The bottom line to reap the health benefits of cauliflower and its cruciferous cousins: eat the real thing. A 2011 study by Oregon State University found that an enzyme called myrosinase, which helps with the absorption of glucosinolates, is missing from most of the supplement forms of the compound.