Closer to home, consumers also are showing their cruciferous love, which is why on a recent morning at Stew Leonard’s in Norwalk Pashke Lleshdedag and Lucson Manedy were hurriedly preparing nearly 150 cauliflower pizzas, split between cheese, pepperoni and Margherita.
“It’s just been selling like crazy,” says the store’s executive chef Michael Olbrys. “It’s unbelievable. And customers have told us they want to make their own, so we are selling the crust, as well.”
Unlike traditional pizza dough, the cauliflower version tends to be crunchier, as the cauliflower and rice flour create a thinner and crispier base. Over at the sushi case, cauliflower is not so much hidden in dough, as it is employed as a culinary illusion. Wrapped in nori, it is a low-carb replacement for the traditional white and brown rice used for sushi.
“We started out with the California roll and then we started doing a salmon and tuna one,” Olbrys says. “We are just building it from there.”
Interest has been growing, in a process that the grocery stores’ chief Stew Leonard Jr. likens to a snowball effect. It starts off small, but then quickly start rolling down hill, gaining size and momentum. After store staff returns from the various food shows, Leonard asks them about the trends they are seeing. Recently, an item that just kept popping up was cauliflower. “It was everywhere,” he says.
Trends have come and go, says Stew Leonard’s longtime buyer Rick Baker, but cauliflower has versatility in its favor, he says. In addition to the pizza and sushi, as well as prepared mashed and roasted cauliflower dishes the store recently began carrying cauliflower pretzels and crackers from a company called From the Ground Up.
“Other trends looked like they would take off, but never really materialized,” Baker says, adding that the pure infiltration into different parts of the grocery store — frozen, snacks, prepared food — makes him think cauliflower is here to stay for a while.
His theory bears out by the numbers. Cauliflower, as an ingredient, has been growing steadily on restaurant menus, according to Mike Kostyo of Datassential, a Chicago-based firm that does market research for the food industry. In surveys, the firm found more than half of U.S. consumers are fans of cauliflower, at a time when “flexitarian,” plant-based and gluten-free diets are gaining in popularity.
On its way to the spotlight, cauliflower has proven itself as viable replacement for grains in snacks, baking mixes and pastas. It has been whipped into a lower-carb version of mashed potatoes. It has gotten chopped and chipped up along with its veggie peers, such as zucchini and carrots, into rice proxy and spun into long strings known as zoodles.
Low in calories and high in vitamins, minerals and fiber, it is an ingredient that can help those looking to lose weight.
“You are getting a lot of volume and if you are making rice out of cauliflower or making mashed ‘potatoes,’ there is a definite appeal to the eye. It’s also so full of fiber and you can fill up on less calories. It’s high in antioxidants and has other benefits,” says Jenna Hourani, a registered dietitian nutritionist at the West Main Street ShopRite in Stamford.
For a chef, cauliflower has the versatility of tofu, but with a better texture. White cauliflower (there also is yellow and purple) is like a blank canvas, in terms of color and its ability to absorb spices and other flavors. A couple of years ago, chefs looking to provide vegan and vegetarian options began cutting full slabs of a head of cauliflower to create “steaks.”
From time to time, Olbrys says his team will create a macaroni and cheese made with cauliflower and a carbonara. Really, one can’t go wrong with pasta and sauce. “We’ve made a cauliflower cream sauce, like an alfredo, with tortellini, too.”
The rise of these florets should not be entirely unexpected, perhaps, given it is from the same family as kale and Brussel sprouts – two breakout trends from seasons’ past. Still, it strikes Meghan Bell, Stew Leonard’s director of public relations, as something of a contradiction. For many, while growing up, these vegetables caused the fork to freeze over the plate.
“Maybe, everything you didn’t like as a kid is coming back,” she says, laughing. “It’s like these cruciferous veggies are finally getting their time in the sun.”
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