Even in Southern California winter starts to get old by February. Yeah, I know that I have nothing to complain about. I lived in New York and New England for a good 28 years before coming out here, so I’ve paid my dues in the sleet, snow, hail, and bluster of bad weather. I won’t begin to try to argue that there’s any comparison between the two. In Southern California winter tends to mean lots of gray days with rain and a decided chill in the air on the way to work. Believe it or not, it’s often in the low 40s or even 30s when I leave the house at 6 am (quite the early bird, I know!).
There may have been a time just a few months ago, when the crisp newness of the air made me write something along the horribly chirpy lines of, “I am just loving butternut squash at the moment and can’t seem to get enough of it.” Believe me, at this point, I’ve had enough. I’m so done with butternut squash, sweet potatoes, and brussels sprouts. I’ve had enough creamy potato soups hold me over until next fall. Having come to dread winter produce, the farmer’s market just isn’t so enticing these days. We made a rare winter trip to our usual farmer’s market a couple of weekends ago as Dylan was putting together a menu for a little dinner party.
A week later, dinner party over and even the leftovers long gone, one enormous, forgotten head of cauliflower sat in the fridge. Dylan’s culinary urges sated for the time being, it was up to me to use the cauliflower, but going through recipes my stomach churned at the thought of yet another wintry, creamy cauliflower soup or puree. Normally I shy away from gratins with a vague sense of guilt over adulterating vegetables with that much cheese and creaminess. But on this occasion, in desperate need of something different, I found this recipe for cauliflower cheddar gratin with horseradish crumbs from Epicurious.
Yes, it’s still very much a wintry meal, rich and gooey, oozing with cheese, but with the pungent spike of horseradish and the crunch of bread crumbs, at least it was something new and different. In fact, it was pretty great. Reminiscent of nothing more than mac and cheese (hold the mac, add a little cauliflower), this recipe could make even the most die-hard cauliflower hater change her mind. Boiled, then baked, the florets become soft, pliable vehicles for the breadcrumbs and cheese- truly, it’s as if all their nooks and crannies were intended to provide as much surface area for holding cheese as possible. It’s not everyday fare, unless you’re trying to jump onto the fast track to gout, but for a once-in-a-while sort of extravagance, it’s perfect.
Cauliflower cheddar gratin with horseradish crumbs (serves 8 as a side)
1 large head of cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2- to 2-inch florets
4 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
6 oz sharp Cheddar, coarsely grated (2 cups)
1/2 cup finely chopped scallion greens
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
20 (2-inch square) saltine crackers or about 1 cup breadcrumbs
2 tbsp drained bottled horseradish
1. Preheat oven to 450°F. Cook cauliflower florets in a large pot of boiling salted water until just tender, 6 to 8 minutes. Drain cauliflower well in a colander and transfer to a 2-quart baking dish.
2. While cauliflower is cooking, melt 2 tablespoons butter in a 3- to 4-quart heavy saucepan over moderately low heat and whisk in flour. Cook roux over low heat, whisking, 3 minutes. Add milk in a slow stream, whisking, and bring to a boil, whisking frequently. Reduce heat and simmer sauce, whisking occasionally, 8 minutes. Remove from heat and add cheese, scallion greens, salt, and pepper, whisking until cheese is melted. Pour cheese sauce over cauliflower and stir gently to combine.
3. Coarsely crumble crackers into a bowl. (Or pour the cup of breadcrumbs into a bowl.) Melt remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a small saucepan, then remove from heat and stir in horseradish. Pour over crumbs and toss to coat. Sprinkle crumb topping evenly over cauliflower. Bake gratin in middle of oven until topping is golden brown, about 10 minutes.