Califonia Bountiful

Caulilini's close-up

March/April 2019 California Bountiful magazine

Chefs praise new vegetable for its looks and versatility

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Chefs across the U.S. are getting creative with Caulilini, a buzzworthy new vegetable grown in California. Justin Cogley serves Caulilini, baby turnips and shiro dashi sauce, above, at Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel in Carmel-by-the-Sea. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Since its introduction to restaurants last summer, a new variety of cauliflower has racked up its share of social-media buzz.

Caulilini SweetStem Cauliflower—developed by Mann Packing in Salinas, the same people who marketed Broccolini—may not have achieved the hashtag status of internet food sensations such as pizza, donuts or cheese-puffs-flavored ice cream. But considering the hundreds of photos chefs and others have posted on Instagram and other social-media sites, sharing their culinary love of the new vegetable, you could say Caulilini is ready for its close-up.

With its long, light-green stems topped with small, cream-colored, open florets, this newest member of the Brassica family bears a passing resemblance to sprigs of baby's breath.

Caulilini is not yet available in U.S. supermarkets, but chefs throughout the nation have been experimenting with it and incorporating the item into their menus. In California alone, the vegetable now appears regularly in more than a dozen restaurants.

"I believe we will see Caulilini pop up everywhere," said Justin Cogley, executive chef of Aubergine at L'Auberge Carmel in Carmel-by-the-Sea.

Cogley was one of the first chefs in the nation to cook with Caulilini. He was part of a chef panel that Mann Packing formed in 2017 to provide early feedback on the new product, which he described as "delicate but meaty and holds up to a number of different cooking methods." His first dish using Caulilini involved a quick sauté with green cabbage and crosnes, or Chinese artichoke, and then adding a sake-based sauce with sesame seeds and sesame oil.

Cogley was one of the first chefs in the nation to try cooking with Caulilini as part of Mann Packing's chef panel. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Inspired creations

As someone whose background is in fine dining and multicourse meals, Cogley said not only was he excited to work with a new product, as it "means new possibilities and new dishes," but he was excited to "bring more local flavors to our savvy guests."

"I like that this vegetable will complement and enhance the other products on the plate and can stand out alone," he said.

At his restaurant, Cogley serves Caulilini as a main attraction with baby turnips and a sauce flavored by dried seaweed and dried fish. He said the vegetable also works well simply blanched and served with a squeeze of lemon.

Other chefs have topped pizzas, flatbreads and tacos with it. In noodle and salad bowls, Caulilini has played starring and supporting roles. It has been made into veggie "hot wings," cream soup and gratin.

Pairings with seafood run the gamut—with Caulilini appearing alongside everything from black seabass and lobster croquette to shrimp risotto and octopus. Chefs also have served it with filet mignon, fried chicken, beef tenderloin, country ham, chicken cordon bleu, short ribs and pulled pork.

Caulilini's unique appearance has inspired creative food presentations. A chef in Bar Harbor, Maine, for example, dressed his plate of bacon-wrapped scallops to look like a bar of music, with Caulilini as musical symbols.

Fried Caulilini with hummus and zhoug is the creation of Tucker Bunch, another member of Mann Packing's chef panel. Photo courtesy of Mann Packing

'Cauliflower's hot new cousin'

"It's very satisfying, the acceptance of it in the culinary world," said Rick Harris, director of growing operations for Mann Packing, who helped develop Caulilini. "All across the country, these chefs have put their own signature on it."

Those who have tasted Caulilini have described it as sweeter than cauliflower, with tender stems and a nutty flavor. One chef hailed it as "cauliflower's hot new cousin." Others agreed the new vegetable reminds them of a cross between cauliflower and broccoli—or, as some declared, "if cauliflower and Broccolini had a baby."

Caulilini, however, is 100 percent cauliflower, Harris said. Though it has not been grown commercially in the U.S. until recently, this type of cauliflower is not new. Harris noted that in Asia, varieties similar to Caulilini—sometimes called Chinese cauliflower—have been popular for years. The United Kingdom several years ago introduced its own version of Chinese cauliflower called Sweet Sprouting Cauliflower.

What makes Caulilini different from other, similar varieties is the way it is grown—a process Harris said he prefers to keep close to the vest.

"There's more to it than just trying to grow a regular cauliflower," he said. "There's more technique. There's more tender loving care."

Harris spent more than a year perfecting this process in field trials while trying to narrow down a variety that grows well year-round in the Salinas Valley. As a young plant, Caulilini looks much like regular cauliflower. But as it begins to mature, the plant opens, exposing the florets. Whereas sunlight can turn the head, or curd, of regular cauliflower fragile, making it bruise easily, with open-faced Caulilini, sunlight turns the florets a cream color and makes the stems grow longer, greener and sweeter, Harris said.

Rick Harris, director of growing operations for Mann Packing, spent more than a year developing Caulilini in field trials, using different growing practices and techniques to bring the new cauliflower variety to fruition. Photo: © 2019 Richard Green

Coming to a grocery store near you?

The variety was once considered an off-type in the field, said Rene Beussen, whose company, Aruba Seed in Santa Clara, partnered with Mann Packing to develop Caulilini.

"The thing that struck me immediately was just the way it eats," he said. "It is so nice, sweet and tender. We thought, heck, we can do something with this."

Working with plant breeders, Beussen came up with several new varieties of long-stemmed cauliflower. He brought them to Harris, who said he immediately saw the potential: This type of cauliflower could be the next Broccolini.

"I was looking for something different. That's what caught my eye," Harris said.

Not only did Harris and Beussen test the varieties in the field, they tested them in the kitchen: They grilled it, baked it, steamed it, stir-fried it, chopped it and microwaved it. They made tempura out of it and ate it raw with dip as part of a fruit and vegetable platter.

Harris said his favorite is tossing Caulilini and broccoli over pasta in a garlic butter sauce. With his busy schedule, Beussen said his go-to side dish is a Caulilini version of cauliflower "rice," which can come together in minutes with a food processor and a frying pan. He said he also likes giving Caulilini a quick blanch and then dressing it with a creamy sesame sauce.

"The versatility of this product is basically endless," he said.

Mann Packing spokesman Jacob Shafer said the company is working on bringing Caulilini to grocery stores sometime this year. He said the firm tests new products on chefs first because they tend to be "receptive and open to trying new things."

"It's the same tactic we took when we introduced Broccolini to the world 20 years ago," Shafer said. "We got the chefs hooked first. Consumers tried it and loved it and were more open to buying it in the store once it was more familiar to them."

Ching Lee


Caulilini, baby turnips and shiro dashi sauce

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