[Gratin de Chou-Fleur]
Ever since my casual mention of my mother's cauliflower gratin a few weeks ago, requests for the recipe have been steadily pouring into my inbox. A silent protest was even organized at the foot of my apartment building the other day, with eager, apron-clad cooks walking in circles and brandishing signs that read, "Cauliflower To The People" and "Let Us Eat Gratin."
Fortunately, there is a back door to my building.
With expectations cranked up as high as the volume knob will go, I feel a little bit intimidated about actually sharing a recipe that is nothing more -- but nothing less -- than a classic French gratin.
But it is a very forgiving recipe that can be prepared ahead in part, and it is a good occasion to try your hand at béchamel if you've never made one before. And in an effort to make your life as easy as can be, this utterly non-diva dish can stay in the turned-off oven for an hour or so before you're ready to serve it (the béchamel prevents it from drying out) and will keep warm for a very long time as diners pass it around the table, eat, and go for seconds.
Gratin de chou-fleur typically makes weeknight appearances on my parents' table: the gratin plays the leading role, while a slice of brine-cured ham (jambon blanc) and a green salad act as the supporting characters.
I have never seen my mother serve her gratin to company, but it seems to me that it would be well received for a casual dinner party and could even be cast for a special meal if you spruce it up a bit, say, by flavoring the béchamel with turmeric and adding a handful of chopped hazelnuts to the cauliflower (making your gratin a cousin of this soup) or, for a v. special meal, by adding truffle juice to the béchamel and a few slivers of black truffle sprinkled amidst the cauliflower. (Omit the nutmeg then.)
Gratin de Chou-Fleur
- One large head cauliflower, about 1.5 kg (3 pounds), trimmed and separated into florets (about 1 kg or 2 pounds when trimmed)
- Freshly grated nutmeg
- 60 grams (2/3 cup) freshly grated comté
- 25 grams (2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
- 25 grams (3 tablespoons) flour
- 1/3 liter (1 1/3 cup) milk
- Fine salt and freshly ground pepper
- 1 to 2 tablespoons breadcrumbs (chapelure in French)
Serves 4 to 6. (The recipe can be doubled, but you may have to cook the cauliflower in two batches.)
Sprinkle the cauliflower with coarse salt and steam for 15 minutes, until soft; if you're using a pressure cooker, it will take 5 minutes starting from the whistle. (The soft cauliflower is part of why I love the dish, but feel free to cook it to your liking.) The cauliflower can be cooked up to a day in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container.
Set an oven rack in the upper half of the oven and preheat to 180°C (350°F). Transfer the cauliflower in a medium gratin dish. (At this point, you can add strips of brine-cured ham or leftover chicken, if you have some lying around in the fridge.) Season with a subtle dash of nutmeg, and top with half of the cheese.
Prepare the béchamel. Have the butter, flour, and milk measured and ready. Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the butter starts to sizzle, add the flour all at once and stir it into the butter with a wooden spoon (this is called a roux blanc). Cook for 3 minutes without coloring, stirring continually until the mixture turns creamy. Pour in the milk and whisk it into the roux blanc, making sure you don't leave any clumps on the bottom and sides of the pan. Bring to a simmer and cook for a few minutes, stirring with the wooden spoon or the whisk as the mixture thickens. Set aside to cool for a few minutes.
Season the béchamel with salt, pepper, and a whisper of nutmeg. Pour evenly over the cauliflower, top with the remaining cheese, sprinkle with bread crumbs, and slip into the oven to bake for 20 minutes, until heated through and well gratinéed at the top; you can switch to the broiler setting for the 5 final minutes. Let rest for five minutes and serve -- you may want to warn your dining companions that the gratin will be very hot.
Any leftovers can be reheated for 10 minutes at 180°C (350°F) the next day.
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