Passé it may be, but there are few more suitable ends for a cauliflower to find itself boiled, drained and coated in a properly made cheese sauce. Resist the temptation to undercook. The raison d’être of a cauli is to end it’s days as a soft and gentle supper to soothe the frazzled and overworked.
– Nigel Slater, Appetite (2000)
New York magazine recently anointed cauliflower the ‘Vegetable Most Likely to Be Mistaken for a Piece of Meat‘ in an article detaling how chefs like René Redzepi* and Daniel Humm were using the white, tightly floreted brassica as the main event for a main course. (Watch out kale: your reign of terror may well be coming to an end.) Well, who could disagree? As Mr. Slater notes above, with the addition of flour, butter, milk and cheese cauliflower belong s in the rare category of vegetables that more or less makes it’s own meal.
Still, at the risk of hubris and provoking the anger of the food writing gods, I believe it’s possible to improve on Mr. Slater’s assertion in two important ways. First, it’s not necessary to boil one’s cauliflower if one bakes it in the oven in a casserole immersed in the cheese sauce for a gratin effect. The florets will cook to softened perfection and there will be one less pot to clean up.
Second, once one is baking things in casseroles, it’s generally the case that the effect of adding a few bread crumbs on top of the dish will be salutary. Indeed, they add a nice element of crunch to the dish that plays well against the soft cauliflower and add a little starchy heft to a one bowl meal.
Here, then, in the spirit of Elizabeth David is a (I hope not too infuriatingly) vague description for this dish, to which I have given a regal name.
Cauliflower Cheese Royale
Take a head of cauliflower, cut it up in chunks and place them in an oven proof dish. Meanwhile, make a traditional cheese sauce by making a roux of equal parts flour and butter. Stir and heat it for a few minutes, then add milk and grated hard cheeses like Cheddar, Gruyere, aged Beemster or whatever combination you like, until you have a thick, creamy consistency. (Add nutmeg if you like; I don’t.) Pour the sauce into the dish, so that the cauliflower is fully immersed. Sprinkle coarsely torn or cut bread crumbs on top, taking care to use your fingers to half immerse them in the sauce, which they will absorb in part. Bake in a fairly hot (375-400F) oven for half an hour, or until the cauliflower feels soft and the top of the dish looks appropriately delicious. Garnish with roughly chopped parsley and serve in bowls with a pepper grinder ready at the table.
*A reminder that if you work in the fine dining, or otherwise have something to do with good food and drinks, and want to hang out with René Redzepi, Magnus Nilsson and other famous world chefs in Toronto on April 8, click here to buy your ticket to Terroir 2013.
Malcolm Jolley is a founding editor of Good Food Revolution and Executive Director of Good Food Media, the not-for-profit corporation which publishes it. Follow him at twitter.com/malcolmjolley