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Cauliflower power: A healthful, creamy side dish

Creamy Cauliflower is a satisfying, healthful alternative to mashed potatoes. Cauliflower contains only 29 calories per cup. Photo by Sue Doeden1 / 2
Steaming cauliflower preserves much of the good vitamins and nutrients that leach out of the vegetable when it is boiled. Photo by Sue Doeden2 / 2

With a new puppy in our house since the middle of July, I wasn't able to do my usual weekend treks with my two biking partners.

But finally, the first weekend in October, the three of us headed to southeastern Minnesota for a full day on the Root River Trail in the Lanesboro area. The day we planned to be on the trail was not the sunny, pleasant autumn day we had envisioned. It may not have been one of the best biking excursions we've had, but the scenery was breathtaking and the food experiences exceeded our expectations.

On our trip down, we stopped for lunch at Lola's Lakehouse in Waconia. Recommended by one of the locals, it did not disappoint. I love avocado, so I couldn't resist the Turkey Guacamole Burger served with Sweet Potato Fries.

Next day's lunch was a bowl of piping hot homemade chicken vegetable soup generously dappled with spatzle at Das Wurst Haus in Lanesboro. It was just what I needed to warm my innards on that cold, cloudy Saturday. When the owner took a break from his duties at the cash register to play a tune or two on his accordion, I was tempted to sit a little longer and order a bratwurst with kraut.

Dinner that evening was a table full of small plates, or tapas, that we shared at Sontes in Rochester. We enjoyed fresh ingredients prepared innovatively and presented beautifully. My favorite was their salad of very thinly sliced roasted beets arranged on a plate to look like a dark ruby flower. It was sprinkled with Amablu, a creamy blue cheese aged in sandstone caves carved from the river bluffs overlooking Faribault, Minn. Pistachios dotted the whole salad and right in the middle was a mound of micro mustard greens. The edible work of art was dressed with a mango vinaigrette. I didn't want that salad to end.

The meal that became the highlight of the weekend was dinner at The Restaurant in Rochester. It opened just a couple of months ago in an old Victorian house by experienced restaurateurs John Caffes and his son, Chris.

As chefs, they both prepare the food that is served in the cozy dining room. I had one of the specials that evening. Perfectly prepared lamb chops, from lambs raised on a nearby farm, were served with fresh vegetables, also locally grown. The small, slender carrots and long, pencil-thin green beans were crisp-tender. Cooked petite purple potatoes were nestled up to cauliflower. Mashed cauliflower. At first glance, the creamy white mound appeared to be mashed potatoes. They were smooth and light with a flavor much milder than you would typically expect from cooked cauliflower.

The day after I returned home from that trip, I made my own mashed cauliflower. I steamed the cauliflower, preserving much of the good vitamins and nutrients that leach out of the vegetable when it is boiled. A small amount of onion, garlic and fresh thyme went into the water that steamed the little florets. I pureed the cauliflower along with the cooked onion and garlic in my food processor to achieve a totally smooth mixture. A sprinkling of freshly grated Parmesan turned golden as it melted under the broiler.

Creamy cauliflower can be a satisfying and healthful stand-in for mashed potatoes. Boasting a mere 29 calories per cup, cauliflower is a rich source of vitamin C, vitamin K, folate and fiber. Good reasons to try Creamy Cauliflower in your own kitchen.

Next, I think I'll try to recreate the house-made raspberry white chocolate baklava I had for dessert at The Restaurant. A few more calories than the Creamy Cauliflower.

Creamy Cauliflower

1 head cauliflower

1/4 of a peeled yellow onion

2 cloves garlic, peeled, smashed

1 sprig fresh thyme

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh chives, sliced, for garnish

Cut out stem and core from cauliflower. Divide cauliflower into small, bite-size florets. You should have close to 8 cups. Rinse and drain.

Place cauliflower into a steamer basket. Put water into the bottom of the pot that will hold the steamer without any water coming through the holes. Add onion, garlic and sprig of fresh thyme to the water. Set the steamer over the water. Arrange the cauliflower in the steamer basket. Bring water to a boil. Cover the pot and steam the cauliflower until it is very tender, about 20 minutes.

Place cooked cauliflower into bowl of food processor or a glass bowl, if mashing by hand. With a slotted spoon, scoop onion and garlic from water and place on double thickness of paper towels. Use another paper towel to pat moisture from the onion and garlic. Add them to cauliflower. Process or mash the mixture until it is smooth.

Spread mixture into a glass pie plate or 8- x 8-inch square glass baking dish. At this point, the dish can be cooled slightly, covered and refrigerated for later use.

When ready to serve, remove cauliflower from refrigerator and uncover. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese.

If Creamy Cauliflower is chilled, bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly around the edges.

If serving immediately after pureeing the mixture, slide it under the broiler just long enough for cheese to melt and the top to begin turning golden brown. Sprinkle chives over the top and serve. Makes 4 servings.

Tips from the cook

--An immersion blender is another option for pureeing the cauliflower mixture.

--Use any fresh herb of your choice to add to the water for steaming. The herb will infuse the cauliflower with a slight hint of its flavor and fragrance.