I used to think that I didn’t love cauliflower. I mean, I liked raw pieces of cauliflower well enough if they were dunked in an ample amount of tangy ranch dressing (that still counts, right?). And, on a trip to the salad bar, I’d probably toss one or two florets in my bowl for good measure on occasion. But, cooked cauliflower? Not in my Veggie Top 5 as a kid. I had only tried steamed cauliflower and quite honestly, the pungent sulfurous smell, thanks to serious overcooking of this member of the cabbage family, was really off-putting. It wasn’t until I started my food career and I began roasting vegetables (transformative!) that poor cauliflower was saved. Tossed in a little olive oil and seasoned with some salt, pepper and Parmesan. Man, now we’re talking – it took cauliflower to a whole other dimension. But then, I just couldn’t stop there. I would sometimes add some breadcrumbs on top. They’d get nice and crunchy…toasty. The cauliflower would caramelize ever so much. And then, my new vegetable obsession turned dangerous. I added a roux, a thick, creamy béchamel, a heap of grated cheese. Topped my lovely sauce-covered florets with more crunchy cheese goodness and ladies and gentleman, you have one of the best gratins ever.
And, even though there’s a fair amount of half-and-half and a mound of fontina cheese that goes into the thing, there are vegetables all in there, so it must be good for you.
At least that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
The Stock Pot: Sensational Sides – Cauliflower Gratin with Fontina and Parmesan
- non-stick cooking spray (or butter)
- 1 large head cauliflower, cut into florets
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for drizzling over gratin
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 large shallots, diced
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
- ¼ cup all-purpose flour
- 2-1/2 cups half-and-half, milk or a combination
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
- 1 cup shredded fontina cheese
- ¾ cup panko bread crumbs
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ¼ teaspoon smoked paprika
- fresh thyme, for garnish
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees; lightly coat a 2-quart baking dish with cooking spray (or butter) and set aside. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil; add the cauliflower florets and cook until just tender, about 6 or 7 minutes. Scoop out the florets with a slotted spoon or spider and plunge the florets in a large bowl of ice water. Drain off the cold water and set aside while you make the cheese sauce.
- In a medium saucepan, heat the olive oil and butter over medium-low heat. Add the shallots and garlic, season with some salt and pepper and cook until fragrant, about 3 minutes. Whisk in the flour and cook for another minute. Whisking constantly, stir in the half-and-half, whisking until smooth. Cook until the sauce is thickened and bubbly, about 6 to 7 minutes. Stir in the thyme and nutmeg. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the fontina cheese. Check for seasonings.
- Build your gratin: spread a little cheese sauce on the bottom of the baking dish. Add cauliflower florets; top with the remaining sauce. In a small bowl, combine the panko, Parmesan and paprika. Evenly sprinkle the topping over the cauliflower; drizzle over a little olive oil.
- Bake until the gratin is golden brown and the cheese is bubbling, about 30 minutes. Sprinkle with some fresh thyme for garnish.
Planning: You can prepare the gratin in advance – only wait to put the breadcrumb topping on right before you’re ready to bake it to keep it crunchy. Cover and refrigerate overnight, if desired. Bring the gratin to room temperature before topping with the breadcrumb mixture and baking as directed.
Product Purity: Fall is peak season for cauliflower, so this dish is a perfect addition to your autumn table. Although “fontina” cheeses are produced in Denmark, France, Sweden and the United States, the only genuine fontina comes from Italy (Fontina Valle d’Aosta). I think it’s superior not only in taste, but it also melts incredibly well and is worth seeking out. Watch out for many store brands of panko (Japanese bread crumbs). Many are made with hydrogenated oils. Progresso is my brand of choice.