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Jefferson-era Recipe: Cauliflower

Time for the February installment of our monthly series in which we post a recipe from The Virginia House-wife, a recipe book published in 1824 by Mary Randolph, kinswoman to Thomas Jefferson. Leni Sorensen, our African American Research Historian and a culinary historian of national repute, has once again made this month's dish and here we include her notes and pictures.

February 2011

The original recipe from Mary Randolph:

Choose those that are close and white, and of a middle size, trim off the outside leaves, cut off the stalk flat at the bottom, let them lie in salt and water an hour before you boil them.  Put them in boiling water with a handful of salt in it, skim it well, and let it boil slowly till done, which a small one will be in fifteen minutes, a large one in twenty, and take it up the moment it is enough; a few minutes longer boiling will spoil it.  (Mary Randolph, The Virginia House-Wife, 1824, pg. 123)

This is a recipe that makes clear that for the most part good cooks of the late 18th and early 19th centuries did not cook vegetables to death as seems to have become the style later in the 19th century.

Randolph requires a soaking in salt water for the whole cauliflowers as she is going to serve the heads whole.  She wanted to be very sure there were no cabbage worms lurking in the creases of the florets.  Even today that is a good idea especially for homegrown cauliflower (and broccoli too). 

When it is ‘enough’ as she so simply phrases it the whole cauliflower is drained well in a colander being careful to keep the whole head together and served hot.  She does not list seasonings but I suggest the following possibilities:

  • Butter (or a drizzle of good olive oil) with a generous grinding of black pepper
  • Buttered and toasted bread crumbs
  • Parmesan Cheese
  • A dusting of Paprika
  • :)  all the above! 

Ready to trim


Boiling in salted water


Seasoning with butter and paprika




lfrancavilla's picture
This is one of my favorite features on our webpages. Thanks so much for sharing these recipes with us, Leni!
Lisa at the PTJRS
ksmeltzer's picture
Thanks for cooking this, Leni. That's the perfect cauliflower serving platter. Does the salt soak and salt in the water when boiling result in a noticeable taste difference? My family recipes usually require boiling our veggies to death, and occasionally a bath in cream sauce postmortem. So I'm really interested in this method of cauliflowering. It looks in the picture like you had only a bit of water in the pot and a lid to top it so the cauliflower is boiled/steamed. Is that correct?
Kristie Smeltzer
Leni the Cook's picture
Thank you for your nice words! MR is so way cool and I want more and more people to know about her. Leni the Cook
Leni the Cook
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