Wow! Doesn’t that look like something that the Mars rovers are picking up by the bushel basket full? Well, it turns out that it’s a type of cauliflower, Romanesco cauliflower, and, while it seems new and strange, it is actually a fairly old variety of cruciferous vegetable.
We got this in our Tuesday CSA share and we knew we had to do something special with it. You can’t just chop this into bits and steam, and cream of cauliflower soup is right out. Whatever you are making has to show off the cool texture and colors. After some debate, we finally settled on a cheesey cauliflower gratin, only we would call it Space-Plant Gratin for obvious reasons.
Oh, you might want to know that, while this is a cauliflower, the flavor is subtly different, maybe more like cauliflower with a very mild broccoli overtone, so it will still pick up a lot of cheese flavor.
This recipe didn’t really come from anything else, other than it’s a pretty standard gratin technique that you can use for almost any type of vegetable.
Serves 2 as a main, 4 as a side
- 1 medium head Romenesco cauliflower
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 cups milk
- 2 Tbs unsalted butter
- 2 Tbs flour
- 2 Tbs onion, finely diced
- 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
- 1 1/2 cup shredded cheese, sharp Cheddar, Gruyere, etc.
- 1/2 cup cottage cheese (or ricotta)
- 6 large mushrooms, sliced (optional)
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 cup bread crumbs
We listed a couple of choices for the cheese, but, basically you’ll want a cheese with a lot of flavor. We used sharp Cheddar because that’s what we had; we would have added Parmesan if we had any on hand today. The softer cheese, like cottage or ricotta, is there to add a bit more moisture, although, if you don’t use it, the gratin would still turn out. Mushrooms are optional; we just happen to like mushrooms in casserole-type dishes.
Disassemble cauliflower. We really wanted to make sure that the florets on the Romenesco cauliflower stayed intact so the shape could be part of the appeal of this dish. That being the case, we took our time cutting apart the head. With regular cauliflower, we would have just chopped it into 1-inch pieces.
Boil cauliflower. In a large pan, bring lightly salted water (1/2 tsp to 2 quarts water) to a boil, add the cauliflower, and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.
Shock. Drain the cauliflower in a colander and rinse with cold running water to arrest the cooking. Don’t let that cauliflower turn to mush. The shocking will also help the cauliflower keep its color. Set cauliflower aside.
Make a roux. A roux at it’s most basic is nothing more than equal amounts of flour and butter cooked together. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and add the flour. Stirring constantly, cook the roux for about 5 minutes, then add the onion and cook 5 minutes more.
Add milk and nutmeg. While stirring, add the milk in 3-4 stages. A small amount at first, a bit more, then even more, thoroughly mixing before the next addition. Add the nutmeg and bring to a boil, stirring all the while, then lower heat and simmer for 10 minutes. This extended cooking ensures that the flour taste is cooked away and that the white sauce has finished thickening, which will keep the cheese from separating.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Add cheese. Add about 1 cup of the shredded cheese to the white sauce, and all the softer cheese. Stir until completely melted. We want to save some of the shredded cheese to put on top of the gratin; it’ll help it brown nicely, and add that extra bit of cheesiness. And you can always use a bit more cheesiness.
Assemble gratin. Lightly butter a baking dish and pour in enough cheese sauce to coat the bottom of the pan (about 1/4 to 1/3 of the sauce should do it). Layer in the mushrooms and any pieces of the cauliflower that are nondescript. Plant “trees” of the cauliflower florets on top of the mushroom layer, then pour the rest of the sauce over the top.
Top gratin. Sprinkle the remaining shredded cheese and bread crumbs over the top, then season with a bit of black pepper.
Bake. Slide the gratin in the oven, uncovered, and bake for about 40 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbly and the top is golden brown.
Serve. Serve your Space-Plant Gratin to the unsuspecting and watch their eyes light up as they are taken over by this tasty dish.
We give this five stars. It has everything for a perfect meal: cheese and a vegetable that looks like a prop from a science fiction movie set. What more could you possibly want in a dinner?