Not exactly cauliflower cheese ~ Ham Pie Sandwiches

17 March 2008

Not exactly cauliflower cheese

Most of the people I know hate, hate, hate cooked (read: boiled) cauliflower. I think even my mother hates it, which is saying something. Boiled cauliflower is just boring. Nothing picks it up: not buttering, salting, or even thoroughly spicing with cayenne. Altering it doesn't work very well either: mashed cauliflower doesn't taste like mashed potato, but like itself, only mushier and more watery. Even cauliflower pureed into a soup doesn't work that well: it's ok, but nothing spectacular. So lots of people finally resort to disguising their bland little florets under a thick coat of sauce: cauliflower cheese.

Cauliflower cheese is Okay. I certainly like a good cheese sauce, but the business under the sauce remains just as limp and watery as any boiled cauliflower.

Solution: roasting. So, you could just roast your cauliflower and serve it in cheese sauce. It would be crisp and savory and good under the rich sauce, but why not do more? Why not make it your whole dinner?

For this version, you make three components, then combine them. That makes it sound like a difficult undertaking, which is not the case. Each piece is very easy on its own, and you don't even have to pay much attention to two of the three. Plus, everything can be totally done in fifteen or twenty minutes if you arrange it right.

Very different cauliflower cheese

cauliflower
olive oil
pasta
butter
flour
milk
cheese
green beans
salt, pepper

General plan: roast cauliflower, boil pasta water, make sauce, combine.

For the cauliflower, do exactly what we've done for all previous roasty cauliflower business. Preheat the oven to 450F. Chop at least half a head of cauliflower into small florets. Stick them in a baking dish, add a little olive oil, and mix to coat. Sprinkle with salt, make sure the florets are in one layer, and throw the whole thing in the oven. Check and stir intermittently as you make the sauce.

Pasta: probably something like penne or orecchiette would be best for a creamy cheese sauce like this. I had vermicelli, which was a little odd for thick cream sauce, but tasted good anyway. Fill a big pan with water, salt, cover, and bring to a boil.

Sauce: while the water is starting to heat, make a cream sauce. Start with a roux: melt a chunk of butter, maybe a tablespoon or so, over medium heat. When it's melted and bubbling, add a palmful of flour. White flour is easiest, but wheat works too. Get out the whisk and beat it all together, then cook, continually whisking for about five minutes. You have to cook the roux for at least a few minutes, or the cheese sauce will end up tasting like flour. Don't do it!

After the five minutes, add milk. I used half a pint for two servings in this case. Any type of milk is fine (well, probably not buttermilk) but higher fatted milks will make a faster, thicker sauce. You can also use cream if you have any lying around, and/or want to be completely decadent and end up glutted later. Beat continually with the whisk until the sauce starts to thicken.

Here's what it'll look like when thickened:

When sometime around here you notice that the pasta water is boiling, dump in the pasta and let it cook for ten minutes or however long it needs. At the midway point, drop in some chopped green beans, or maybe peas if you want. Drain at the appropriate time.

Meanwhile, grate cheese into the sauce. For classic cauliflower cheese you want cheddar, and lots of it. This would be really good with a sharp grating cheese like parmesan, though, especially if you added peas. Anyway, add as much cheese as you want, whisking continually to incorporate. The sauce will gradually get thicker and thicker; if it ever gets too thick, you can beat in some water. Add a little salt and a lot of fresh black pepper. Cheese sauce demands as much pepper as you can throw at it.

At this point the sauce is done, and hopefully the pasta and etc as well. How about the cauliflower? Is it golden brown and delicious? Ok then.

My preferred assembly: dump the drained pasta and beans into the sauce. Stir to coat completely. Serve onto plates and top with lots of cauliflower bits. You could also mix the roasted cauliflower with the pasta and etc, and pour the sauce over all: this would come a lot closer to the classic cauliflower cheese. In either case, dust with good salt and more black pepper, then eat.

Variations:

- gruyere sauce with a little nutmeg, peas, and some bacon or prosciutto.
- gruyere sauce with roasted slivered almonds.
- smoked gouda sauce with ham, or just by itself.
- parmesan or asiago sauce with red pepper and garlic (roasted with the cauliflower).
- rice instead of pasta, with lots of soupy sauce, for the most sleep-inducing food ever.
- or mashed potatoes instead of rice: no, THIS one is the most sleep-inducing idea ever. Forget any greens and just whip the sauce and cauliflower into a big plate of mashed potatoes.
- seasoning the cauliflower before roasting: a good whack of cayenne can turn them into super spice bombs to find accidentally in the (cheddar, parmesan) cheese.
- or marinating the cauli in white wine or vermouth for an hour beforehand, for super savory bombs (in parmesan or gruyere) instead.

A big mess of dark greens would go well here.

Now I'm really hungry.

2 comments:

cedar said...

I guess I am one of those odd few who likes cooked cauliflower...but I am a total veggie freak, I haven't met one I don't like, yet!

This sounds incredible! I saved the recipe, so I can try it in the near future.

eileen said...

Thanks, cedar! I actually like cauliflower pretty well, considering, but this was so much better. I hope you like it!