Last night, we went to the home of some family friends for dinner. I asked what I could bring, and was told “vegetables.”
Here’s the conundrum. We had to travel an hour, so the food either had to stay hot for the trip or needed to be cooled completely and reheated. So a barely-cooked vegetable like a garlicky sautéed spinach or kale was out. So were brussels sprouts or cabbage – they would be nice on first cooking, but the reheating would send them over the edge into stinkland.
Time to fall back on an old favorite – cauliflower gratin. To prepare this quickly with minimal textural or nutritional loss, use the microwave to pre-cook the cauliflower. I know the microwave takes a lot of flack, but for certain tasks, it is ideal. Microwave radiation heats water molecules in food, cooking it at the boiling temperature of water. Although microwave cooking is less gentle than poaching – making it unsuitable for cooking proteins – it is ideal for cooking vegetables that can be steamed or boiled. In addition, because water vapor escapes during microwave cooking (as opposed to steaming or boiling), it is a useful cooking method for collapsing cell volume in vegetables such as eggplant. Microwaving cauliflower allows you to cook it in five minutes rather than waiting for the pot to boil, cooking the cauliflower, and draining it well so the water in the crannies doesn’t water down a gratin.
I sliced the cauliflower thinly (1/4″) and microwaved for five minutes per batch. Meanwhile, I made a béchamel. To develop the most flavor, I browned the butter first. I finished the gratin with a panko and cheese blend. Into the oven for 10 minutes and under the broiler for 2. Gratin, really fast.
Prep time is minimal. Slice the cauliflower straight from the head after washing.
1 head cauliflower, washed (about 1.25 lbs)
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp Wondra (or all purpose flour)
2 c milk
salt and white pepper to taste
espelette pepper, or hot Hungarian paprika
2 sprigs thyme, leaves only, minced
2 tsp minced chive
1 c finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided into 2/3 and 1/3 cups
2/3 c panko
Slice the cauliflower (1/4″), arrange in a single layer on a plate, cover with a slightly moist paper towel, and microwave on high for 5 mins. Repeat as necessary until all cauliflower is cooked.
Meanwhile, prepare a brown butter béchamel sauce. Brown the butter and sprinkle in the wondra/flour. Whisk well and cook for a minute or two to cook off the floury taste. Add the milk slowly, adjusting to the thickness of a medium béchamel (just thick enough to coat a spoon). Season with salt, pepper, espelette, herbs, 2/3 c cheese. Fold in cauliflower in gratin pan/dish.
Combine remaining cheese and panko and sprinkle mixture over cauliflower. Bake 10 minutes. Turn on broiler and broil 8″ from heat for another 2-3 minutes. Turn for even browning if necessary.