The rise of cauliflower

December 14, 2016

Paul Reeves remembers the late 1980s and early 1990s, when cauliflower, he said, “was kind of a lost crop.”

The Long Island, New York, vegetable grower said the demand wasn’t really there for cauliflower, and a lot of people stopped growing it.

Not now.

“For the few farmers who held on and remember how to grow it,” he said, “it’s making a comeback.”

That might be an understatement. Cauliflower is exploding in popularity and exposure, with everyone from experts to trend-watchers to celebrity chefs going on record to describe it as “the new kale.” Reeve’s Aquedogue, New York-based Bayview Farms is having no trouble selling the 40 acres it grows annually.

While Reeve’s cauliflower goes mainly to fresh market, the processed market is having a field day rolling out new products – with preparation tips – in response to the demand.

Take Mann’s new Cauliflower Cauliettes, part of what the company describes as its Culinary Cuts Line. The fresh, microwave-ready, finely chopped cauliflower has the consistency of rice and can be used as a substitute for everything from rice to potatoes.

Its Nourish Bowls line, which features fresh-cut vegetables with grains and sauces that can be microwaved and ready within four minutes, includes two varieties with finely chopped cauliflower. It also produces bagged fresh-cut cauliflower florettes and a medley with broccoli and carrots. The flavor profiles for Nourish Bowls were developed in tandem with three San Francisco area chefs.

“For us, the recent attention has translated to a 15 percent increase in sales year over year,” said Jacob Schafer, spokesman for Salinas, California-based Mann’s. “According to AC Nielsen, cauliflower is the fourth- highest selling vegetable in total in the U.S. Florets & Blends segment.”

The Titano, manufactured by Turatti, removes crowns and creates florets of cauliflower. Photo: Turatti
The Titano, manufactured by Turatti, removes crowns and creates florets of cauliflower. Photo: Turatti

Green Giant Fresh, the fresh produce arm of Green Giant, has expanded its Cauliflower Crumbles product first introduced in 2015 with new Cauliflower Crumbles Fried Rice Blend and Sweet Potato & Cauliflower Crumbles.

On the frozen side, Green Giant has been selling its frozen Green Giant Riced Cauliflower for about a year, and also recently began offering a variety of frozen Riced Veggie blends that include cauliflower, along with frozen mashed cauliflower and a new line of Veggie Tots – like tater tots but with cauliflower and other vegetables.

Sales for Santa Maria, California- based Gold Coast Packing’s value- added cauliflower products have taken off, said Vice President of Sales and Marketing Brent L. Scattini. About 75 percent of the company’s business is in the foodservice sector.

“We’ve probably seen at least a 130 percent increase in our sales in the last year and a half, talking about cauliflower in general,” he said.

Its fine diced Caulifornia Snow cauliflower – which makes a cut that’s about the size of a grain of rice – comes in 1-pound bags for retail, which is about equivalent to a full head of cauliflower. It’s in a variety of retail spaces, including most Aldi stores nationwide.

“It cuts out the whole necessity for a food processor and making a mess, giving everybody the ability to make something quickly and still be able to do these recipes that are on Pinterest,” said Katie Boncich, Gold Coast’s marketing manager, in reference to the multitude of recipes on the Internet and social media now that use fine chopped cauliflower to make pizza crust, rice and homemade cauliflower tots.

“They can cut out 15 minutes of prep time by not having to wash it, process it … all of the things we are doing here for them.”

Gold Coast also makes various sizes of cauliflower florets – some bite size to suit different recipes.

“We’re all trying to please (consumers) and get as much for them in whatever convenient shape, dice, washed product we can provide them to kind of save them some time and give them the ability to get creative,” Boncich said.

While Gold Coast Packing modified equipment to create its new cuts, manufacturers like Turatti North America are also seeing demand grow for machinery that can process cauliflower in all its various forms.

“One of the most popular selling right now is for the floretting of broccoli and cauliflower,” said Alessandro Turatti, president and CEO of Turatti North America. Turatti has added a preliminary station to its floretting machine that cuts and removes the leaves first. The same machine also can handle the increasingly popular fine dice.

“A lot of people who were not interested in eating the old florets, now they can (use riced cauliflower) blended with other ingredients like quinoa or whatever they like,” Turatti said. “We are also getting the stalk, and the core … can be diced, shredded or made spiralized.”

Three examples of Mann Packing products made from cauliflower. Photos: Mann Packing
Three examples of Mann Packing products made from cauliflower. Photos: Mann Packing

Fueling a trend

What’s driving the growth in sales and product mix of cauliflower in particular? Health benefits, for one.

“Cauliflower has long flown under the radar, but the health benefits can’t be denied,” said Mann’s Schafer. “One serving contains a load of Vitamin C, and the produce is an exceptional source of protein and fiber.”

Many cooks – professional and otherwise – are turning to cauliflwoer as a substitute for carbs in pizza crusts, baked goods and side dishes.

Innovation is another hot trend.

“We’re seeing a lot more innovation from schools, foodservice and retail,” Boncich said. “It was more of a piggyback to broccoli. Now, it’s like a culinary chameleon.”

That’s because cauliflower soaks up added flavors and takes on the persona of the spices or cooking methods applied to it.

“We do know that florets are going to the schools and that schools are starting to play around with the rice (cauliflower) a little bit to cut out carbs from their menus,” Scattini said. “Chefs have really embraced these products.”

One of those chefs is Tawfik Shehata, an executive chef at the International Center in Mississauga, Canada, and spokesman for Foodland Ontario, a provincial ministry that promotes local products.

“Cauliflower is sort of like the ugly stepchild to broccoli, but people like chefs started to be more creative with vegetables that were generally forgotten,” Shehata said. “I think some of that has been driven by cost – the more popular vegetables were getting more expensive.”

That backfired last year, when supply weakened and the value of the Canadian dollar went down, leading to cauliflower selling for as much as $8 a head for a while in Canada.

“It was a slap in the face when cauliflower quadrupled in price,” Shehata said, explaining that restaurants who had begun putting it on the menu either had to absorb the extra cost or temporarily remove it from the menu.

That may actually have helped, in an absence-makes-the-heart-grow-fonder kind of way.

“If anything, it increased the appeal because it put cauliflower in the news,” he said. “Who talks about cauliflower? Nobody, and all of a sudden everybody is talking about a vegetable they never order, they never buy … then they go out to restaurants afterward and the price gets back to normal, they see it and are more apt to order it.”

Examples of the kinds of cuts machinery makes in cauliflower. Photo: Turatti
Examples of the kinds of cuts machinery makes in cauliflower. Photo: Turatti

Now prices have stabilized and cauliflower continues to gain fans – Shehata among them. He loves it roasted, or diced fine in a pilaf-style dish.

“I think people going into restaurants and seeing that are more apt to try it at home,” he said, “so buying that bag of florets if two people are at home makes more sense than buying a whole head.”

The finer cuts also enable processors to use more of the vegetable, reducing waste.

“Whereas at home you probably only would take the florets, we’ve utilized a lot of ways to save the core,” Boncich said. “Chefs use it in slaw. For cauliflower rice, we use the whole head. For regular cauliflower, we keep the stems (cores) and sell them to foodservice customers to use as they want, whether they slaw or just as a flavor to soup or salad.

“They are doing endless things with the cauliflower stalk that would have just been trashed or animal feed.”


Moveover, kale

Sandra R. Menasha, a vegetable/potato specialist with the Cornell University Cooperative Extension in Suffolk County, New York, is currently conducting trials for different cauliflower varieties in support of Long Island growers.

“This was prompted by the trend: cauliflower is the new kale,” she said. “That’s kind of how I’ve heard how things are, and the growers were talking about it, too.”

Last year’s drought in California put more demand on Long Island cauliflower growers, who produce about 500 acres of cauliflower annually. Her trials aim to identify varieties that will thrive in her region, including newer types with self-wrapping leaves that help keep the heads inside white.

“It’s a very good thing for Long Island, since we are known for our cauliflower and have a long history of growing cauliflower,” she said.

And the demand is also good for processors of cauliflower products.

“I think there’s endless opportunity for it right now,” Scattini said, “just identifying what the consumer wants, identifying the trends that make the most sense and trying to capitalize on those trends.

“I don’t think we’ve really scratched the surface yet in terms of the applications of this product for the retail consumer.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer

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