Crisped Cauliflower With Lemon Tahini Sauce. (Washington Post)

If you dine out frequently, you might find that a chef's influence on what you eat extends beyond the restaurant. As evidence, I pose this question: Have mussels, charcuterie or flatbreads found their way onto your dining room table over the past year or two?

The truth is, chefs get bored easily and are always looking for an ingredient, whether never-heard-of or resurrected, that will become the next big thing that diners will revere and their peers will emulate. Even the side dish section of the menu, for years a rote addendum of asparagus, haricots verts and creamed spinach, is part of a trending phenomenon. If you don't think so, I have seven words for you: maple-glazed Brussels sprouts with applewood bacon.

If indications on restaurant menus all over Washington are accurate, cauliflower may well be the new Brussels sprouts.

I admit to a bit of bias. I adore Brussels sprouts, but I find cauliflower to be a much more visibly alluring vegetable, with its bold globes of cream-white curds and nests of vibrant greenery.

Those stocky outer leaves protect the head from sunlight, impeding chlorophyll development and accounting for the vegetable's color. Its nutritional characteristics are appealing — low in fats and carbs, high in Vitamin C and a source of potassium, folate, Vitamin B6, fiber and protein — and you can do just about anything to cauliflower in addition to eating it raw, including grating it for "risotto," as some chefs do.

"I like that it is so versatile," says Mike Isabella. "It can take the lead in a dish or highlight another ingredient. It can have the most subtle profile, such as a puree to go with lobster, or even be the centerpiece of a sandwich."

At his recently opened G sandwich emporium in D.C., the chef features a sandwich that has earned its own buzz. Isabella stuffs a sesame hoagie roll with al dente pieces of roasted cauliflower, charred scallions, fresh herbs (dill, mint, parsley), shishito peppers and pickled shallots. The sandwich is dressed with lemon paprika vinaigrette and a house-made romesco sauce.

Roasting cauliflower is a preferred method among food pros, for good reason. It rids the vegetable of much of its water, concentrates its flavor and adds the extra dimension of caramelization. Christophe Poteaux at Bastille in Old Town Alexandria, Va., tosses oven-roasted florets with capers, dates, olives, piquillo peppers and fresh oregano.

At Isabella's D.C. eatery, Graffiato, cauliflower straight from the wood oven is finished with lemon juice, pecorino Romano cheese, shaved red onion and mint. Nearby, at Bibiana, Nick Stefanelli roasts baby cauliflower whole and garnishes it with black olives, golden raisins and pine nuts for his vegetarian tasting menu. And in between the two, Del Campo chef Victor Albisu chars cauliflower in a cast-iron skillet, blasts it in a wood-fired oven and serves it with a garlicky, boldly flavored salsa verde.

In a more complex treatment, chef Jerry Hollinger at the Daily Dish in Silver Spring, Md., builds a terrine by suspending sweet potato-goat cheese puree between two layers of poached cauliflower, one made with the green variety, the other with purple. The tricolor slices make a stunning presentation.

In D.C., Aaron McCloud of Cedar Restaurant and Bart Vandaele of B Too make versions of risotto, grating cauliflower into rice-size pieces and cooking them as you would the Italian rice classic. The dish, finished with butter, cheese and cream, takes on the texture of starchy arborio rice slowly cooked with wine and broth in the traditional method — minus the carbs that rice imparts.

Cauliflower has not escaped the chef's penchant for deep-frying. At Proof, Haidar Karoum mimics a dish he grew up with. His dad used to fry florets and serve the golden brown nuggets at family events with a tahini, lemon and garlic sauce.

"It's great for parties," Karoum says, "because it's a dish that actually gets better as it sits out, not worse."

Inspired by those chefs, I embarked on my own cauliflower experimentation, soon malodorously evident throughout the house.

"A lot of people associate cauliflower with a nasty thing that smells like a fart," notes chef McCloud, "and so it is an underutilized vegetable. For me, either you go all the way and cook it for a long time, or cook it a little so it maintains a nice crispiness. Otherwise, you lose the integrity of the vegetable."

As to the odor, he says, you just have to work through it, but I found that lighting two kinds of aromatic candles (wood smoke and amber; sea salt and bay rum) mitigated the problem pleasantly.

I started off making the risotto, adjusting ingredients and incorporating parts of McCloud's and Vandaele's methods, such as using the Manchego cheese recommended by the former and folding in unsweetened whipped cream at the end per the latter.

I can't say that if my eyes were closed I would mistake the dish for the real thing, but the playful riff is satisfying in its own right.

I devised an easy way to oven-roast florets and get a nice, even color on them by finishing them under the broiler. The browned pieces, mixed with garlic, a pinch of nutmeg, heavy cream and Gruyere and Parmesan cheeses, baked into a bubbly brown gratin. Aside from not watering down the cream, roasting the cauliflower made the dish more intense and therefore interesting. I could have eaten it as a main course with a lightly dressed salad.

For another side dish, I paired roasted florets with brown butter, cured black olives, lemon zest and golden raisins, a riff on the Bibiana preparation. That would also have made a perfect relish topping for, say, grilled swordfish.

I also found that sauteing the florets in a few tablespoons of oil and stirring them frequently over medium heat for 15 minutes creates a pan-roasted affect. Adding loads of sliced garlic and freshly ground black pepper, minced ginger, curry powder, peas and sliced serrano pepper transforms the florets into a zesty interpretation of the Indian dish gobi (cauliflower) matar (peas) that's served at the Bombay Club near the White House.

My last cauliflower idea was improvised. When friends stopped by unannounced one evening for cocktails, I cobbled together a nibble board of trapezoids of random leftover cheeses; slices from a, shall we say, mature piece of chorizo; and raw cauliflower florets with an anchovy-rich Caesar salad dressing dip. That went over well: All of the cauliflower was eaten, rather than returned to the refrigerator in zip-top bags for reinvention later on.

Anchovy has long been a favored foil for cauliflower in Italian and French cooking. At Bibiana, Stefanelli honors the tradition by roasting cauliflower with garlic and anchovies (for saltiness), then sauteing it with tubular paccheri pasta and finishing with crushed red pepper flakes (background heat), toasted pine nuts (nuttiness), raisins rehydrated in white wine (sweetness and acid), pecorino Romano (richness) and parsley.

"I made this dish several years ago, and guests keep asking me for it. When it comes into season in the beginning of the summer and in the fall, I always have to put it back on the menu," says the chef. "It's getting to be that time of year again."

I'll light a scented candle to that.

Roasted Cauliflower With Pistachios, Olives and Raisins

6 servings

1 large head (2 pounds) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), broken into 1 1/2-inch florets

3 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup dry vermouth

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup shelled, roasted unsalted pistachios

1/3 cup cured pitted black olives, coarsely chopped

1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes

Finely grated zest and juice of 1 lemon

Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Coat the cauliflower florets with the oil and salt, then spread them on the baking sheet with any flat edges down. Bake on the lower rack for 20 minutes.

Preheat the broiler, then transfer the baking sheet to the top rack and broil for 10 minutes. The florets should be browned and tender.

Meanwhile, place the raisins in a small bowl. Warm the vermouth in a small saucepan over medium-low heat, then pour it over the raisins to plump them.

Melt the butter in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the butter stops foaming and its solids start to brown, turning the butter golden in color, stir in the pistachios, olives, crushed red pepper flakes and lemon zest and juice. Stir the plumped raisins and any remaining vermouth into the mix. Remove from the heat.

Transfer the broiled cauliflower to the saute pan, stirring to coat and incorporate.

Serve immediately.

NUTRITION Per serving: 280 calories, 6 g protein, 22 g carbohydrates, 19 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 12 g sugar


Peppery Gobi Matar

6 servings

3 tablespoons canola oil

1 small head (1 pound) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), broken into 1 1/2-inch florets

1 teaspoon kosher salt

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 teaspoon best-quality curry powder

12 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1-inch piece peeled fresh ginger root, minced (4 teaspoons)

1 serrano chili pepper, thinly sliced (unseeded)

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 cup fresh peas (may substitute 1 cup frozen peas, plunged into hot water, then drained)

Heat the oil in large saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the cauliflower florets and salt; cook for about 15 minutes, stirring often, until the florets are nicely browned on all sides.

Make a well in the center of the pan; add the butter there. Once it has melted, stir the curry powder into the butter; cook for several seconds, then add the garlic, ginger, serrano pepper, black pepper and peas. Cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently to coat and incorporate.

Serve immediately.

NUTRITION Per serving: 150 calories, 3 g protein, 10 g carbohydrates, 11 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 10 mg cholesterol, 350 mg sodium, 4 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar


Crisped Cauliflower With Lemon Tahini Sauce

4 servings

For the sauce

1 cup tahini

1/2 cup fresh lemon juice

1/2 cup water

3 cloves garlic, crushed

2 teaspoons kosher salt

Dash hot sauce, such as Tabasco

For the cauliflower

4 cups canola oil, for frying

1/2 head cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2-inch florets (4 cups)

Kosher salt

Leaves from 1/2 small bunch mint, minced

For the sauce: Combine the tahini, lemon juice, water, garlic, salt and hot sauce in a food processor or blender; puree until smooth.

For the cauliflower: Line a baking sheet with paper towels, then place a wire cooling rack over it.

Heat the oil in a medium pot over medium-high heat to 350 degrees. Working in batches as needed, carefully add the florets and fry for 3 to 5 minutes, until golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the florets to a baking sheet lined with paper towels. Season them with salt while still hot.

Transfer to a serving bowl; garnish with the mint. Serve with tahini sauce on the side.

NUTRITION Per serving (using half the sauce): 320 calories, 8 g protein, 15 g carbohydrates, 28 g fat, 3 g saturated fat, 0 mg cholesterol, 590 mg sodium, 6 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar


Roasted Cauliflower Gratin

6 servings

1 large head (2 pounds) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), broken into 1 1/2-inch florets

3 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

1/2 cup heavy cream

1 small clove garlic, minced

1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese

1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Position oven racks in the upper and lower thirds of the oven; preheat to 375 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Toss the cauliflower florets, oil and salt in a mixing bowl to coat. Spread the florets on the baking sheet, flat edges down. (Wipe out the bowl; you'll use it again.) Bake on the lower rack for 20 minutes, then turn the oven on broil. Once it's preheated, transfer the cauliflower to the top rack and broil for 7 to 10 minutes, until nicely browned and tender. Keep the broiler on.

Transfer the florets to the same bowl you first used. Add the cream, garlic, Gruyere cheese, half of the Parmigiano-Reggiano and all the pepper and nutmeg. Stir to incorporate, then spoon the cauliflower into a large gratin dish. Sprinkle with the remaining Parmigiano-Reggiano and return to the broiler for 5 minutes, until golden brown and bubbly.

Serve hot.

240 calories, 20 g fat, 8 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 370 mg sodium, 9 g carbohydrates, 4 g dietary fiber, 4 g sugar, 9 g protein.


Cauliflower Risotto

6 servings

1 head (2 pounds) cauliflower (outer leaves removed), cored and halved

2 tablespoons canola oil

1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped (1/2 cup)

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

3/4 cup dry white wine

1 cup no-salt-added vegetable broth, warmed

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Pinch freshly grated nutmeg

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature

1/2 cup grated Manchego cheese

1/2 cup heavy cream, whipped to soft peaks, then brought to room temperature

Use the large-hole side of box grater to grate each cauliflower half into rice-size pieces, stopping once you get to the stalk. The yield should be about 4 cups. (Cut the stalks into 1/2-inch pieces and reserve for another use, such as a puree or soup.)

Heat the oil in a large saute pan over medium-high heat. Once the oil shimmers, add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes, until softened but not browned, stirring constantly. Add the cauliflower and salt; cook for 2 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add the white wine and cook for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the wine has evaporated.

Add the broth in three equal additions, stirring for about 3 minutes, until each addition has been absorbed.

Add the pepper, nutmeg, butter and cheese, stirring until incorporated, then stir in the cream.

Serve immediately.

230 calories, 19 g fat, 10 g saturated fat, 45 mg cholesterol, 270 mg sodium, 7 g carbohydrates, 2 g dietary fiber, 3 g sugar, 4 g protein.

By David Hagedorn - The Washington Post