By Emily Paster
Fall is cauliflower season and I could not be more excited. Although broccoli is just about my least favorite vegetable, I adore its cruciferous cousins, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts. Cauliflower has all the healthy, cancer-fighting nutrients that you would expect from a member of the Brassica family and a mild, nutty taste that appeals to adult and kid palates alike. Zuzu, for example, absolutely loves roasted cauliflower. Most people boil cauliflower, and that is fine if you are going to use it as a crudité. But if you are making cauliflower as a side dish, try tossing it with olive oil, salt and pepper and roasting it at high heat. You will be amazed at the sweet, nutty taste of roasted cauliflower.
While white cauliflower is the most common variety, if you frequent farmers' markets, you might be able to spot purple or orange cauliflower. I was very excited to see orange cauliflower at the Oak Park Farmers Market recently sold by my friend Kenny Stover of Stover's Farm Market in Michigan. I was informed that this particular variety of orange cauliflower is known as cheddar cauliflower. I couldn't resist the beautiful color or the appealing name, so I bought two.
Once I heard the name cheddar cauliflower, I was pretty much set on the idea of making a cauliflower gratin. For those of you who aren't familiar with gratins, they are a French dish in which a vegetable is covered with a white sauce, topped with a crust, usually cheese and bread crumbs, and then baked. The most famous gratin is made with potatoes –potatoes au gratin, anyone? Some gratins can even include fish or other seafood. But you can make a gratin with any vegetables from tomatoes to zucchini.
Gratins are usually served as a side dish but I think a hearty gratin is plenty of dinner on its own. And if the gratin is the main course, you can feel a little less guilty about the amount of butter and cheese involved. The cheese used is often Swiss or Gruyère, but when you have a cheddar cauliflower, how can you contemplate using any cheese but cheddar? Fortunately for me, my friends at Cabot Creamery had recently sent me a care package with several varieties of their award-winning cheddar. I selected the Seriously Sharp Cheddar as the perfect match for my cheddar cauliflower.
To make this gratin, you start by parboiling the cauliflower so it will be nice and soft in the finished dish. The next step is to make a white sauce or béchamel, by making a roux with butter and flour and then adding warm milk. (If you are saying "huh?" at this point, don't worry about it. I will walk you through the whole process below.) The grated cheese is added to the white sauce and then combined with the cauliflower. This may seem like a lot of work, but the good news is, the dish can be assembled ahead of time and then baked right before you wish to eat.
Cheddar Cauliflower Gratin
Feel free to use whatever milk is in your refrigerator. Skim milk will make a thinner white sauce than whole or 2% milk. If you only have skim milk but would like a thick sauce, replace some small portion of the milk (like 1/2 to 1 cup) with heavy cream or half-and-half.
- 2 heads cauliflower, cut into florets
- 4 TB butter
- 4 TB all-purpose flour
- 3 cups milk
- 1 1/2 cup grated sharp cheddar
- 1/2 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
- Salt and pepper to taste
- 3/4 cup fresh bread crumbs
- Pinch of paprika
- Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and parboil the cauliflower florets for 5 minutes until just tender. Drain and plunge the florets into ice water to stop the cooking. Drain again and set aside.
- Preheat oven to 375.
- To make the white sauce, begin by melting the butter in a large heavy saucepan. Whisk in the flour and continue to cook over low heat, whisking constantly, for 4-5 minutes to get rid of the raw flour taste. Do not let the mixture (known as a roux) brown.
- While the roux is cooking, heat the milk in a separate saucepan and keep warm.
- After the roux has cooked for a few minutes and the milk is warm, gradually whisk the milk in to the roux. Raise the heat to medium and cook the white sauce until it begins to thicken, about 3-5 minutes.
- Remove white sauce from heat and add the nutmeg, salt and pepper, and 1 cup of the grated cheddar. Stir until smooth.
- In a separate bowl, mix together the bread crumbs and the remaining half-cup of grated cheddar.
- Arrange the drained cauliflower florets in a single layer in a 2-qt baking dish. (You may have some florets left over which can be repurposed as crudites.)
- Pour the cheese sauce evenly over the cauliflower and toss gently to coat.
- Sprinkle the bread crumb-cheese mixture over the cauliflower. Sprinkle a pinch of paprika on top for color.
- Bake for 30 minutes until the top is browned.
Full disclosure time: This post was not sponsored in any way. I received several cheeses from Cabot Creamery free of charge, but was not asked to write about them nor did I receive any compensation.