Wednesday, December 06, 2006

World's Easiest Cauliflower Gratin

Faced with partial heads of cauliflower left from several cooking classes (which had included au gratin and hot cauliflower-artichoke antipasto), after dinner a few Sundays ago I tried a simplified version of au gratin cauliflower using various odds and ends in the kitchen. Unfortunately it turned out so tasty I ate a third of the casserole dish, and that was after a full meal and a number of fresh chocolate chip cookies and white wine. This is not a dish for the faint of heart, or those trying to exercise restraint.

With crisp early winter weather setting in, seasonally right cauliflower transforms happily into a rich side dish or luncheon main dish. Cauliflower on its own is one of the blander members of the cabbage family (technically the mustard, or Brassica, family). But with a tangy cheese (I initially used an aged domestic provalone called "auricchio") and a little black pepper and nutmeg the fullness that really is in cauliflower emerges. Other cheeses that would serve well are Gruyère, asiago (use only part, since it is so strong), or aged sharp cheddar. All of these cheeses can be expensive, so you can get away with half that and half a cheaper milder cheese such as "Swiss" or jack.

Normally gratin dishes are complex to make, with numerous steps. The method here avoids making a bechamel sauce. I think that this is about as easy as a gratin gets. And it's worth it.

The dish goes amazingly well with a hearty chardonnay or a medium-bodied dry, spicy red like a Côtes-du-Rhône, Spanish garnacha or a Chianti. Warm crusty baguette or Italian bread is a great accompaniment, and if the gratin is the main dish, an uncomplicated salad of field greens and some tomato would be ideal.

Simplified Cauliflower Gratin (Gratin de Chou-fleur) Tim

(Recipe serves six as a side dish or four for lunch)

1 small-medium head of cauliflower
1/2 cup milk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1-1/2 cups (loosely packed) grated tangy cheese (Gruyère, Jarlsberg, extra sharp cheddar, or asiago mixed with milder cheese)
2 tablespoons grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon olive oil
Large pinch each of salt and pepper

Set oven for 375 degrees. Separate cauliflower flowerets and place them in a steamer. Sprinkle them lightly with salt and steam for 5 minutes. Rinse with cold water to stop their cooking. In a bowl, combine milk, mayonnaise, cheese, salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add the cauliflower and toss to mix. Transfer mixture into a shallow attractive casserole dish big enough so you have a 1 to 1-1/2 inch layer. Mix breadcrumbs with olive oil, salt and pepper to moisten, and sprinkle it over the cauliflower. Bake, uncovered, until turning golden on top and bubbling gently along the edges, 25-30 minutes. Serve hot in the casserole dish.

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