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One of the ancient among cultivated trees, almonds have been grown in the Middle East and Greece for millennia.

These days, most of the world's almonds are grown in California. Their seeds contain an edible pit that's unusually versatile. Stores carry almonds that have been slivered, sliced, chopped and ground.

Almonds can be used raw or roasted, eaten whole with hickory salt or ground into paste (along with sugar and egg whites) to make marzipan. Sliced toasted almonds adorn cakes and pastries; roasted almonds add texture to candy bars and depth to snack mixes.

Almonds can even be made into a nondairy milk, by blanching them, rubbing off their skins and blending them with water. It's usually strained before use in cooking or drinking.

Bitter past: Wild almonds, which still grow in the Middle East, are poisonous to humans. Their seed kernels are used to produce oil and extracts but cannot be eaten raw because they contain too much deadly prussic acid.

In this recipe, cauliflower's savory side comes out when it's darkened in a hot skillet. Add a little zing with red wine vinegar -- lemon juice would be lovely, too -- and the crunchy almonds offer welcome contrast. Briny capers and a shower of parsley add to the pleasure.

> Cauliflower with Toasted Almonds

1 large head cauliflower, chopped, about 6 to 8 cups

3/8 cup olive or vegetable oil

2 large cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon red wine vinegar

1 tablespoon capers (optional)

1 to 2 tablespoons sliced Italian parsley leaves (optional)

1/2 cup or more slivered almonds, toasted

Salt and pepper

To chop cauliflower, place whole head stem-side down on large cutting board. Using a large, sharp knife, slice the head in 1/2 -inch slices. Discard tough stem parts and leaves. Chop slices into nickel-sized pieces.

Toast almonds in dry skillet, or on a pan in a toaster oven, until golden brown and fragrant. Remove from heat.

In your largest skillet, heat the oil until it is almost smoking. Add garlic and stir for 1-2 minutes, until garlic starts to brown. Add cauliflower chunks and shrapnel, and stir frequently to coat cauliflower with garlic oil. Sprinkle with a teaspoon or two of salt.

Saute over high heat, stirring every 2-3 minutes, until cauliflower is browned and toasty smelling, about 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat.

Add vinegar, capers and parsley if using, and toss to combine. Season to taste with salt and fresh ground black pepper. Toss with toasted almonds and serve.


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