Ahh, cauliflower cheese. Few dishes more keenly evoke all that’s wrong with British food. It’s the dour culinary history of our grimy little island summed up as nursery slop. Cauliflower cheese belongs to the memory as a dull vegetable, over-boiled yet still acrid, squatting in a floury, tasteless sauce next to watery carrots and leathern beef.
It does not have to be this way. The bits are all good, and we can put them together better.
Felicity Cloake does cauliflower cheese justice in her Guardian column rather better than I will. She’s great, incidentally, and has a couple of books out. Anyway, you save cauliflower cheese by not murdering the cauliflower, and by putting a bit of effort in with the sauce. It’s not hard, and the result is rich and tasty.
But it’s still a slightly odd side dish, and I wanted a main. What to do?
My first thought was to add spinach and/or ham, and maybe toss it through pasta; penne would work. The ham in the cheese sauce would basically make this Croquetas – The Extra Gout Edition, and I’m down with that. But to be honest, at this point you’re eyeing up the crunch and tang of the cauliflower, and wondering whether something else might not work better. Half an hour later, you’re tossing parma ham slivers and ricotta through orecchiette, while the cauliflower glares at you reproachfully from the countertop.
Obviously, I’m going to do that at some point, but not today.
So gnocchi, then, and something for depth. Leeks work well, though I did consider sticking with the spinach idea, or even some wilted greens. A herb crust was suggested by a friend on Twitter, and I’m indebted. Without it, this would have been a little too bland.
In hindsight, however, thyme may not have been the best call. Fresh oregano is probably in order, or just heaps of flat-leaf parsley.
- Strong cheddar
- Fresh herbs (thyme in this case)
In a food processor, blitz up some bread with the herbs and plenty of grated parmesan.
Fry the leeks gently in the butter until softened, then work this up into a cheese sauce. So, add a decent spoonful of flour, cook out the roux, and work in the milk until you’ve got a smooth béchamel . Grate in plenty of cheese and stir it though until amalgamated. The cheese should be tangy and strong, but not viciously acid. Add a scant teaspoon of mustard. This cuts through the dairy a little and makes it all a bit more exciting. Well done – we’ve made two classic sauces today, and I’ve managed not to abbreviate this whole thing to “pour mornay sauce over blanched cauliflower and gnocchi”.
Speaking of which, blanch the cauliflower. It probably wants about 3 minutes, so there’s still some bite to it. Towards the end, throw in the gnocchi for thirty seconds or so. Strain it all, and stir the gnocchi and cauliflower through the cheese sauce.
Tip the lot into a baking dish, top it with the breadcrumb mix, and bake it at 200 or so until it bubbles and the crust browns.
This isn’t a flavour roller coaster, but it’s tasty. The cauliflower should hopefully retain a little bite, and its slight bitterness slices through the homogenous dairy richness. The leeks help out with this, and the gnocchi are basically just magnifying the comforting stodge of it all. This is rainy afternoon food, most certainly.