I’ve always been picky about eating cauliflower. I don’t dislike it, but it hasn’t always been my favorite vegetable, either. When I was growing up, it was often served lessato–cooked in boiling, well-salted water and then dressed simply with olive oil and lemon juice (or red wine vinegar). It’s a classic Italian preparation for many vegetables, and I like it just fine, just not for cauliflower. I find cauliflower underwhelming in the flavor department, so I prefer this cruciferous vegetable prepared in a different and more flavorful way: in a classic gratinata.
Identical to a French gratin, an Italian gratinata enrobes cooked vegetables in a creamy béchamel sauce and is then topped with a mixture of breadcrumbs and Parmigiano, dotted with butter, and baked until the sauce bubbles gently and the crumb topping has browned. Now that we are well into fall and headed towards winter, cruciferous and root vegetables are taking center stage at the markets. Using what is abundant and in season is the best way to experience the best flavor and texture of vegetables. Other vegetables that are excellent to use in a gratinata are potatoes, endive, leeks, swiss chard, turnips, onions, butternut squash, brussels sprouts, parsnips, celery root, fennel, and broccoli (romanesco is particularly delicious if you can find it). Because so many vegetables complement each other in both flavor and texture, you can get creative with different combinations. A cauliflower gratinata is the perfect side dish for the upcoming holidays–it’s easy to make and the recipe can be increased to feed a crowd. The vegetables can be cooked a day ahead of time, drained and dried well, and stored in a tightly sealed container to cut down on preparation time the following day.
The key to a successful gratinata is to use a light hand when distributing the breadcrumb-cheese mixture over the béchamel-laced cauliflower. Sprinkling the breadcrumb mixture onto the vegetables in a loose layer will allow the oven’s heat to circulate around the cheese and melt it into a crisp and golden brown crust that is the hallmark of a good gratinata. A final pinch of freshly grated nutmeg adds a warm essence to every bite. Once it’s in the oven, you’re only twenty minutes away from a superbly flavorful side dish that will make a cauliflower-lover out of anyone.
Use a large-enough stock pot or soup pot to accommodate the amount of cauliflower you are cooking, as it needs plenty of room to “swim” around in the water to cook evenly.
1 head cauliflower, cut into large florets and washed
2 tablespoons Kosher salt
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, divided and at room temperature
1 recipe béchamel sauce
3 tablespoons Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano
1 tablespoon plain breadcrumbs
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil and add in the salt, stirring to dissolve it completely in the water. Add in the cauliflower and cook it for 10-15 minutes, stirring often, until the florets are easily pierced with a paring knife or fork. Drain the cauliflower through a colander and run cold water over the florets until they are completely cooled. Set aside.
Note: The cauliflower can be prepared a day in advance and refrigerated (drained and dried) in a tightly sealed container.
Preheat the oven to 375º.
Make the béchamel sauce.
Grease an oven-proof casserole dish with ½ Tablespoon of the butter. Spread ¼ cup of the béchamel sauce into the bottom of the dish. Add in the cauliflower and spread the florets out in an even layer. Pour the remaining béchamel sauce over the florets. Use a spoon to gently toss the florets to coat them evenly in the sauce.
In a small bowl, mix the Parmigiano-Reggiano (or Grana Padano) with the breadcrumbs. Sprinkle the mixture evenly over the cauliflower, finishing with a sprinkle of the nutmeg over the breadcrumb mixture. Dot the top of the florets with the remaining ½ Tablespoon of butter.
Bake, uncovered, for 20-25 minutes, or until the breadcrumb mixture has browned lightly and the béchamel sauce bubbles gently. Serve hot.