It's kind of a dead season at the moment if you are trying to keep to locally produced seasonal vegetables. As a result, when I saw a nice head of cauliflower yesterday at the store I decided to bring it home and see what I could make of it. It's not my favorite vegetable, but one of my resolutions for 2005 was to stop buying exotic and out of season produce. Unfortunately, I hadn't realized that to some people there is no such thing as "a nice head of cauliflower". More imortantly, I hadn't realized this group of people includes my beloved spouse. It looks like I'm going to be eating a lot of cauliflower in the next few days. It's me or my worms, anyway. (Let me hasten to clarify that the worms in question are in a wormery on my balcony, not myself!)
The weather here in Paris has recently turned colder, so I opted to use half of the head in an old classic: cauliflower au gratin. The bottom drawer of our fridge conveniently contained a couple of cheese ends needing to be used up, and the heat would be welcome in our cold flat. Also, the mix of cabbage or cauliflower flavors with sharp cheese is a marriage made in heaven. I toyed for a bit with the idea of using blue cheese, but since I haven't had cauliflower in a long time opted for the more classic combination of cheddar cheese, with a bit of French comté.
Oddly enough, none of my many cookbooks contained an acceptable recipe for the cauliflower. The vegetarian cookbooks all suggested curries, which are interesting in their own way but I prefer them as part of an Indian-themed dinner. The Fannie Farmer (my old standard) had a recipe for creamed cauliflower that looked bland and cauliflower gratin that looked dry.
So I combined the two Fannie Farmer recipes to make something more satisfying, creamy and flavorfull.
Cauliflower au gratin
1/2 a head of cauliflower, cut in slices one inch (1.25 cm) thick
1 Tbs butter
1 Tbs flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup sharp cheddar, grated
1/2 cup comté, grated
1/2 a nutmeg, grated
1/2 tsp salt
freshly ground pepper
1 Tbs bread crumbs
Melt the butter until frothy in a small sauce pan. Add the flour and stir until it turns nut brown. Slowly add the milk, whisking as you go to avoid lumps. Gradually add the cheeses, then the nutmeg, salt and pepper. Taste for seasoning.
Arrange the slices of cauliflower in a small baking pan. Drizzle some of the cheese mixture over each layer as you go, making sure you reserve enough to completely cover the last layer. Sprinkle the top with bread crumbs and bake in a hot oven (200C/375F) for 45 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender and the top has browned nicely.
Serve as a side dish, especially with a nice steak au poivre and maybe a salad.
Oh, and before you purchase the cauliflower, you might want to question your nearest and dearest about their taste for the vegetable: it appears there is no middle ground on this one, you either like it or you really, really hate it!