Ornamental Separator

A Classy Cabbage

Once described as a gentleman’s delicacy, cauliflower is now prized for its versatility

John Randolph recorded in his 18th-century Treatise on Gardening that cauliflower must be sown “critically to a day” or successful growth could not be guaranteed.

For spring planting in Virginia, according to Randolph, that day was April 12, or Sept. 12 for fall. Wesley Greene didn’t speculate whether those dates were hard and fast in his Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way. But Greene does advise that the plants grow best at temperatures between 58 and 68 degrees, so temperatures within 85 days of planting must be taken into account for a successful harvest.

Greene tells us that cauliflower was first described in England by John Gerard in 1597 as one of the finest members of the cabbage family. Centuries later, Mark Twain would call cauliflower “nothing but cabbage with a college education,” hinting at its expense during Victorian times.

Cauliflower was considered a bit of an extravagance in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, too. Many authors of the time period list it as one of the delicacies found in the gardens of gentlemen. Its elite status was due to the difficulty of raising cauliflower. Greene calls it “one of the more demanding residents of the kitchen garden.”

Historic Foodways apprentice Tiffany Fisk agrees.

“Cauliflower has been grown in Italy since the 15th century,” Fisk said. “It’s primarily a gentleman’s garden plant because it takes so much time and space to grow.” Although it is labor-intensive, Fisk said cauliflower most certainly would have been found in 18th-century Williamsburg because it was the capital city, and there were plenty of gentry living in the area. Today, it is grown in the Palace Garden and in the Colonial Garden, across from Bruton Parish Church on Duke of Gloucester Street.

Fisk discovered an 18th-century recipe that looks surprisingly like a recipe from cookbooks of the 1950s. But in a nod to the Italians, who cherished cauliflower, this recipe uses Parmesan cheese instead of American.

“Cauliflower makes a great substitute for rice or potatoes,” said Travis Brust, executive chef of the Williamsburg Inn. “It’s lower in calories, is more flavorful and has a silky, smooth texture in recipes.”

Cauliflower is one thing Brust does not grow in his own garden, for exactly the reason it appeared primarily in the gardens of the gentry. “It takes too much space and too much time!” But he enjoys cooking with it and likes the varieties, including purple, orange and green in addition to the traditional white cauliflower. The colorful varieties can be used in any recipe that calls for white cauliflower.

“A fresh cauliflower should feel heavy for its size. If it is too light, that means it is drying out. Check for mildew on the flowerets,” he said.

Cauliflower is on the menu at the Williamsburg Inn, where a soup appetizer is just one of the selections.

“It’s creamy and smooth, garnished with kale pesto, pine nuts and Parmesan,” Brust said. The Inn also serves Romanesco broccoli, part of the same Brassica family as cauliflower. “It is unique because it has the naturally repeating geometric form of a fractal. It’s become a real star on our menu.”

Because of its crunchiness and mild flavor, cauliflower has become a popular vegetable in recent years. It can be used in place of foods containing gluten or with higher carbohydrates such as pasta and pizza crust, appealing to diners seeking those options. Brust suggests roasting and slicing cauliflower, which works well with marinades and spices. “For a real treat, substitute cauliflower for half of the pasta next time you make macaroni and cheese.”

Brust shares his own crowd-pleasing recipe for what he calls “a pillowy, velvety” purée of cauliflower, topped with seared ocean scallops and garnished with cashews and herbs.


Purée of Cauliflower Seared Ocean Scallops, Cashews and Torn Herbs

Williamsburg Inn

Yields 5-6 servings


  • 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • ¼ Spanish onion, sliced extra thin
  • kosher salt and white pepper, to taste
  • 1 cauliflower, cut into florets
  • vegetable or chicken stock to cover
  • ½ cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons chives, minced
  • seared ocean scallops (recipe below)
  • cashews for garnish
  • herbs for garnish (chives, tarragon, basil and parsley)
  1. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed soup pot.
  2. Add the onions, season with salt and pepper and cook slowly until translucent.
  3. Add the cauliflower florets and cook until softened.
  4. Barely cover with stock and simmer for 30 minutes.
  5. Blend until very smooth.
  6. Add the cream and season with salt and pepper to taste.
  7. Strain through a fine mesh sieve; then add the chives.
  8. Serve in a warm bowl and garnish with the seared ocean scallops, cashews and torn herbs.

Ocean Scallops

  • tablespoons olive oil blend
  • 10–12 extra-large sea/ocean scallops
  • kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  1. Heat a large skillet to medium-high temperature and add the oil.
  2. Ensure the scallops are dry and have the side muscle pulled off; season liberally with salt and black pepper.
  3. Place the scallops in the hot oil and sear until they develop a golden-brown crust. Flip the scallops only after the golden-brown crust has developed.
  4. Once the scallops are flipped, add the butter, garlic and thyme to the pan and allow the butter to melt.
  5. Glaze the scallops with the butter for approximately one minute and remove from the heat.

Cauliflowers with Parmesan Cheese

Historic Foodways

Yields 5-6 servings

  • 1 large cauliflower, leaves removed
  • ½–1 cup gravy of choice, homemade or store-bought
  • ½–1 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
  1. Parboil the whole cauliflower until just tender.
  2. Drain, pat dry and place on a greased baking sheet.
  3. Brush with gravy.
  4. Sprinkle a generous coating of Parmesan cheese over the entire cauliflower.
  5. Bake at 375 degrees until the cheese bakes to a golden color — no more than 10 minutes.
  6. Serve hot as an accompaniment.

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