Cauliflower rice has reached craze level — but does it taste like rice?

There’s a Cuban slang term that perfectly describes the latest cauliflower trend.

“It’s like white rice. It’s everywhere,” goes the saying popular among my rice-crazy people.

In this cauliflower trend case, it’s not like white rice – it is white rice. It’s cauliflower rice and, yes, it’s everywhere.

Dueling bowls of cauliflower fried rice: Which did we like best? (Liz Balmaseda/ The Palm Beach Post)
Dueling bowls of cauliflower fried rice: Which did we like best? (Liz Balmaseda/ The Palm Beach Post)

Chefs are stir-frying it. Big box stores are selling chilled packages of it. Paleo devotees and vegans are singing its praises.

But does it taste like rice rice? Short answer: It can. Sort of.

Like rice, cauliflower morsels soak up the flavor of their seasonings. The cruciferous veggie can develop a sulfurous scent if overcooked, but it can be avoided in a quick, well-seasoned skillet.

I first tasted cauliflower rice in a brilliant stir-fry dish by nationally acclaimed Miami chef Giorgio Rapicavoli, a James Beard Award “Rising Star Chef” nominee who is a regular headliner at the Palm Beach Food & Wine Festival. The almost crunchy cauliflower fried “rice” is sautéed with shishito peppers and carrots at Rapicavoli’s Eating House restaurant.

Inspired, I bought a head of cauliflower days later and riced up the florets in my food processor, reserving the stems for soup. I chopped up aromatics and veggies, then went about my stir-fry, swapping in the riced florets for white rice.

The result was tasty, but rather mushy. Perhaps I left it in the pan, covered, for too long. Or perhaps residual moisture on the florets combined with the heat emanating from the spinning processor blade doomed the rice.

Riced and packaged cauliflower at Trader Joe's. (Liz Balmaseda/ The Palm Beach Post)
Riced and packaged. 

Whatever the case, my cauliflower rice enthusiasm was relegated to the back burner of my mind. Then I found a bag of perfectly riced cauliflower at in the produce section of Trader Joe’s.

It was evidence of a trend already well established. A Paleo-following friend mentioned she buys packaged riced cauliflower at Costco. And recently, Green Giant got in the cauliflower rice game, rolling out bags of frozen “Riced Veggies” this month.

Cauliflower rice without the chopping and food processor hassle? I was intrigued enough to grab a bag of it at Trader Joe’s and cancel my white-rice side dish plans for our Sunday night supper.

I kept the preparation simple. I sautéed chopped onion, celery and two or three garlic cloves in olive oil for a couple of minutes over medium heat, then added about a cup and a half of the packaged rice and turned up the heat to medium-high. I seasoned the ingredients with salt and pepper and sautéed the granulized cauliflower in the garlic-infused oil for three to four minutes. I lowered the heat and covered the pan for another minute or two, then tasted for seasoning and texture.

It was not as tender as my food-processor rice had been, but it was not mushy – it was almost there. I covered it for another minute and it was perfect.

I scooped a large spoonful of the rice into a bowl of garbanzo, butternut squash and chorizo stew. The rice soaked up the stew’s flavors without losing its lightly chewy texture.

I topped my homemade garbanzo stew with cauliflower "arroz." (Liz Balmaseda/ The Palm Beach Post)
Garbanzo stew + cauli “arroz.”

The heady bites of that Sunday supper sparked other cauliflower rice ideas and curiosities: Would it work in paella, or arroz con pollo? Could it ever match the creaminess of risotto?

Nina Kauder, a plant-based chef working in Lake Worth and Boynton Beach, can vouch for the success of cauliflower rice in risotto. She sampled a stellar rendition at a five-course, “plant-powered” dinner she presented some days ago at Boynton Beach’s Secret Garden culinary incubator. It was a mushroom Marsala served over truffled cauliflower risotto.

The success of this rice, she says, was built with layer upon layer of flavor, from the dish’s earthy mushrooms to its meaty chickpeas and bright, fresh herbs.

“When you’re creating vegan food, you want to build a lot of layers of flavor. You can’t be one note. It’s not enough,” says Kauder.

Cauliflower rice, an excellent source of vitamins and phytonutrients, has many benefits, she notes. But, flavor wise, it needs some love.

That love starts in the form of aromatic sautés or sofritos and continues with spices and herbs and seasoned broths made of roasted veggies and/or bones.

“It’s all about the seasoning. It’s what focuses the flavor,” says Kauder, who suggests experimenting with nutritional yeast for deeper, rounder flavors. Just sprinkle about ¼ cup of the yeast into your cauliflower rice sauté. “The greatest cheat in vegan dishes is nutritional yeast. It gives you the cheesiness in flavor and texture.”

Mushroom Marsala over cauliflower risotto, as presented at Secret Garden dinner in Boynton Beach. (Contributed by Sivan Fraser)
Mushroom Marsala on cauliflower risotto, as presented at Secret Garden. (Credit: Sivan Fraser)

Some days ago, I asked Tequesta personal chef Lenore Pinello to conduct a flavor and texture experiment in her cook shop, In the Kitchen. (Watch the cook/taste test on video at MyPalmBeachPost.com/rice.) The recipe: her simple fried rice.

Pinello fired up two woks and stir-fried a progression of veggies in them. To one wok, she added cauliflower she riced using a hand grater. To the other, she added the Trader Joe’s riced cauliflower.

In the end, it was a bit of a tie. For flavor, we preferred the hand-grated cauliflower best, as it soaked up more flavor than the other. For texture, we liked the more al dente feel of the packaged rice.

“But I could eat both of them all day long,” Pinello said.

Then, in an apparent flash of inspiration, she reached for one of the cauliflower stems she had set aside. She grated the vegetable’s tougher part into a bowl. The texture of the riced stem was similar to that of the packaged cauliflower rice.

That seemed to explain why the bagged rice was drier than the fresh one – the fresh one was made of more tender florets.

Chef Kauder believes that using the stems is a genius move.

“What do you do with the tough core once you’ve packaged the florets? It’s perfect for the job at hand (ricing). It’s maximizing the retailability and reducing their waste,” she says.

The bigger picture, of course, is that trendy cauliflower rice may be succeeding in places the food pyramid fails.

“The truth is no one eats enough vegetables – even vegetarians,” says Kauder, noting the uncanny resemblance of white rice and cauliflower rice. “We eat with our eyes first and sometimes vegetables that are reminiscent of other foods are not enough – it really has to look like it.”

FRIED CAULIFLOWER RICE

Recipe by Chef Lenore Pinello of In the Kitchen shop in Tequesta.

Serves 4

4 sliced bacon, cut into lardons (cubes)

1/2 cup diced onions

1 tablespoon sesame oil

2 cups riced cauliflower, either freshly grated or packaged

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 cup frozen peas, defrosted

1/2 cup shredded carrots

1/2 cup sliced scallions

2 tablespoons freshly grated ginger

Preheat a wok or large skillet. Add bacon and stir-fry until golden brown.

Add onions and cook for 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Drizzle sesame oil into pan until fragrant.

Add cauliflower and stir-fry 2 to 3 minutes, until tender (but not mushy). Add soy sauce to coat the cauliflower rice.

Toss in peas and carrots and stir-fry until the colors are bright, about 1 minute.

Add the scallions and ginger and cook for 1 minute.

Season with salt and pepper to taste. Spoon into bowls and serve immediately.

Loren Cordain, the researcher who dubbed the term "Paleo diet," has written a new cookbook called "Real Paleo Fast & Easy" that features this recipe for crisp spicy pork with cauliflower rice and herbs. Photo by Loren Cordain
Loren Cordain’s ‘Real Paleo Fast & Easy’ cookbook includes the following recipe for this crispy spicy pork with cauliflower rice and herbs. (Credit: Loren Cordain)

CRISPY SPICY PORK WITH HERBS

with cauliflower rice

Recipe from “Real Paleo Fast & Easy,” by Loren Cordain (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt).

Serves 4

1 pound ground pork

3 tablespoons coconut oil, divided

2 teaspoons smoked paprika

1 teaspoons crushed red pepper

1 teaspoons cumin seeds

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 medium head cauliflower, broken into florets

2 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds, toasted

2 teaspoons lemon zest

1/4 cup snipped fresh parsley

1/4 cup snipped fresh mint

Lemon wedges or crushed red pepper, for serving (optional)

Form pork into two 1/4-inch-thick patties. In an extra-large skillet heat 1 tablespoon of the coconut oil over medium-high heat. Place patties in skillet; cook 3 minutes or until bottoms are browned and very crisp. Carefully turn patties and cook 3 minutes more or until second sides are browned and crisp. Reduce heat to medium. Break patties into small pieces; add smoked paprika, crushed red pepper, cumin and garlic. Cook 2 to 3 minutes or until spices are fragrant and meat is cooked through.

Meanwhile, in a food processor pulse cauliflower (in batches if necessary) until the pieces are the size of rice. In a large skillet cook cauliflower rice in the remaining coconut oil over medium heat 5 minutes or until tender and just beginning to brown, stirring occasionally. Stir in almonds and lemon zest.

Serve pork over cauliflower rice; sprinkle with parsley, mint and, if desired, additional crushed red pepper and lemon wedges.

First look: vegan Meraki Juice Kitchen in downtown West Palm Beach

Bright bite: avocado toast at Meraki Juice Kitchen. (Liz Balmaseda/Palm Beach Post)
Bright bite: avocado toast at Meraki Juice Kitchen. (Liz Balmaseda/ Palm Beach Post)

At first glance, Meraki Juice Kitchen feels like a grab-and-go place. Freshly packaged salads chill in a cooler, as do pressed juices.

The downtown West Palm Beach spot is stylish yet casual, perfect for take-out smoothie orders. But despite its limited menu and space, chef Christopher Slawson’s organic plant-based café also serves as an urban oasis for those who’d like to settle in and enjoy a healthy bite, as I did on a recent Sunday afternoon.

The avocado toast, topped with sunflower sprouts and sprinkled with salt and pepper, made for a delicious mid-afternoon snack ($5.95). I enjoyed it between sips of Meraki’s bottled “Abundance” juice (pressed cucumber, romaine, chard, kale, ginger, pear and lime, $9.50).

The counter attendant offered me a special daily bonus, a 2-ounce bottle of kicky ginger tonic (normally $3.50), made of freshly pressed lemon, ginger and cayenne pepper. Strong stuff, this tonic. Even a nano sip smacked the afternoon haze out of me.

Kicky stuff: freshly pressed ginger-cayenne tonic. (Liz Balmaseda/Palm Beach Post)
Kicky stuff: freshly pressed ginger-cayenne tonic. (Liz Balmaseda/Palm Beach Post)

Perched on Fern Street, Meraki is the sister eatery of Christopher’s Kitchen, Slawson’s popular plant-based restaurant located on the PGA Boulevard dining corridor in Palm Beach Gardens. He opened the place on Aug. 16 with his uncle, Richard Slawson. Like Christopher’s Kitchen, it offers a selection of organic, plant-based desserts, smoothies, salads and a daily soup. Unlike the more established restaurant, which serves a large menu at lunch, dinner and Sunday brunch, the new spot focuses on daytime-type dishes.

Still, there’s plenty here to keep a fan of Slawson’s fresh, creative cuisine coming back. And when you savor your meal at one of the café tables, you can look out the window into what is presently part of a construction site and envision the green space it will become. Once the current construction is finished, Meraki’s quaint patio dining area is sure to be one of the loveliest spots for a downtown bite.

Meraki Juice Kitchen: 328 Fern St., West Palm Beach; 561-508-6640; MerakiJuiceKitchen.com

 

Three places for a sinful bite on World Vegetarian Day

LettuceFILE

If your idea of celebrating World Vegetarian Day is to dine on salad, you may be missing the day’s more sinful temptations. Like cashew cream.

Chef Chris Slawson, who owns the plant-based Christopher’s Kitchen in Palm Beach Gardens, is a master of this delicacy. It’s the substance that adds dreamy richness to his eatery’s ice “cream.” And wait till you try the macadamia “ricotta” that melts atop Christopher’s Kitchen’s pizzas. Like the ice cream, it’s among the stylish cafe’s more naughty options — and there are many of those.

Here’s the reality check: You don’t have to brave a mound of cold iceberg to stand in solidarity today (Thursday) with World Vegetarian Day. You can indulge. Here is a trio of good spots to do so in Palm Beach County:

Christopher's Kitchen: chocolate tart with vanilla ice "cream" made with cashew-coconut cream. (Palm Beach Post file)
Christopher’s Kitchen: chocolate tart with vanilla ice “cream” made with cashew cream. (Post file)

Christopher’s Kitchen

For all the above reasons and more.

4783 PGA Blvd., Palm Beach Gardens; 561-318-6191

Darbster's Palm Cake is a crispy favorite. (Post file)
Darbster’s Palm Cake is a crispy favorite. (Post file)

Darbster

Few places are more pooch-friendly than this waterside eatery. In fact, the restaurant’s proceeds benefit the Darbster Foundation, which helps local animal rescue and welfare efforts.

Decadent pick: the crispy hearts of palm cakes with caper remoulade and baby greens.

8020 S. Dixie Hway, West Palm Beach; 561-586-2622 

Getting crunchy at The Bee, West Palm. (LibbyVision.com)
Getting crunchy at The Bee, West Palm. (LibbyVision.com)

The Bee

This sunny spot is a good place for a fragrant cup of tea or vegan snack.

Decadent pick: the avocado toast with watermelon radish, lemon, tomato, cayenne, sea salt and sesame seeds.

123 Datura St., West Palm Beach; 561-651-9796

TWITTER: @LizBalmaseda

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