Cauliflower

Cauliflower isn’t really the sexiest vegetable. Never mind that Mark Twain called it cabbage with a college education; cauliflower can be a little bit, well, plain. It’s hard to imagine a way that one could dress it up, not that we haven’t tried by bringing out its natural sweetness in roasting or grilling it. But it’s winter — the end of winter, to be sure, but winter all the same — and we have a few more weeks of serving some of winter’s heartier fare. Make the most of it with this gratin recipe — with its use of winter cauliflower and its creamy, warming sauce. And to top it all off, it’s healthier than its luxurious texture may make it seem at first glance.

I first learned this trick of puréeing cauliflower when trying to get kids to eat it; if you mix it into mashed potatoes, they can hardly tell. The puréed cauliflower lends a certain nuttiness to the béchamel sauce. Together, they make this gratin soft and creamy yet healthy and light. It’s a perfect weeknight dinner for the last few weeks of winter.

Cauliflower Gratin Recipe

(adapted from Tomato Kumato)

1 head cauliflower, cut into florets
2 ounces bacon, cut into matchsticks
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup whole milk
1 teaspoon organic Dijon mustard
1 pinch nutmeg
1/4 tsp. black pepper
salt to taste
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
1 teaspoon olive oil

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit.

Put the cauliflower in a saucepan of cold water. Bring the water to a boil and cook the cauliflower until tender, about 15 minutes once boiling. Drain.

In a saucepan, cook the bacon over medium heat until crispy. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate saucepan over low heat. Remove the bacon from the saucepan, leaving behind the bacon grease. Add the butter and flour and cook, whisking, 2-3 minutes. Slowly drizzle in the warmed milk, whisking all the while. Cook until the sauce thickens to a thin béchamel (the texture of cream), 10-15 minutes. Remove from the heat.

Either in a blender or using an immersion blender, combine the béchamel and 1/4 of the cooked cauliflower. Purée until creamy and transfer to a bowl. Add the rest of the cauliflower, the reserved bacon, the mustard, the pepper and the nutmeg. Stir to combine, and season to taste with salt.

Pour the cauliflower mixture into a baking dish. Top with parmesan cheese and breadcrumbs, and drizzle the olive oil over the top. Bake, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes, until the top is crispy and the cauliflower is bubbly. Cool 15 minutes before serving.

Image: Horia Varlan