As the spring unfolds at my farmer’s market, I usually get a few heads of cauliflower before the temperature starts to rise. It’s true, there’s more to be had in the early autumn, but spring cauliflower is so welcome after the long (at least it always seems long to me) winter. It’s typically not the prettiest cauliflower—kind of small, a little purple underneath—but beauty is only skin deep. The taste and the tender texture are amazing. I’ve been known to nibble through the raw florets all the way down the stems.
Not exactly so for my husband, Don. Cauliflower, broccoli—in fact, much of the crucifer family—do not spell c-o-m-f-o-r-t for Don. He refuses to eat them raw, and he picks his way around them in many of the dishes I prepare… except for one: Creamy Cauliflower Mac n’ Cheese. What can I say?
I came across this recipe years ago in Runner’s World magazine. The featured chef, Mark Bittman, wrote The Food Matters Cookbook, as well as several other bestsellers and hosts a popular blog. Here’s a snippet from his “About” page:
“There is no one like Mark Bittman, whose core message—that food has the power to make or break not only our personal health but that of the planet—is increasingly accepted and broadcast widely.”
Can you see why he won my heart? And stomach, too, of course.
Since Chef Bittman is a runner and Don is a runner, the recipe and the source in which it appeared lent credibility to my husband’s meat-and-potato line of thinking. The fact that it uses two kinds of cheeses also upped its chances for being a “repeat” dish in Don’s mind. He was game, so I started to cook. The result was a rich, delicious casserole with a whole head of nutrient-dense cauliflower hidden in a velvety sauce. Everyone liked the dish so much that it has been served many times over the years, especially when it is rainy and cloudy outside and we are both seeking “comfort” from the spring storm.
What I like about this dish is its flexibility, using whatever cheeses I have on hand and substituting gluten free pasta for whole wheat when my daughter visits. I also like its reliance on healthy ingredients rather than a lot of high-fat dairy to make it satisfying—I don’t say this to Don, however.
- Two and a half cups homemade or commercial vegetable stock (You can use chicken stock, if you are not vegetarian.)
- Two bay leaves (I have also used fresh whole sage leaves from my herb garden, along with a bay leaf.)
- One large head of cauliflower, cut into florets (If I have tender-fresh market cauliflower, I also use a lot of the stems. You want about six to seven cups cauliflower for this dish.)
- Eight to 10 ounces pasta (The original recipe calls for elbow macaroni, but I have used every shape imaginable, except spaghetti or fettuccini. And gluten-free works great!)
- One-half cup grated cheese (I try to use local, like Marcoot Jersey Creamery in Greenville, IL. I love their smoked Gouda in this dish, but Gruyere and white cheddar are also favorites.)
- Two tablespoons olive oil
- One tablespoon Dijon mustard
- One teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (The nutmeg is a real standout here, so no skimping on pre-ground, if possible. Also, the original recipe only used one-eighth of a teaspoon—not enough for this green gal, but maybe for you.)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- One-quarter cup Parmigiano-Reggiano (The original recipe calls specifically for this as a topping cheese, but, again, I use what I have—Parmigiano or white cheddar or asiago, etc.)
- One-half cup whole-grain bread crumbs (I make my own with stale wheat bread or, for gluten-free--with a combination of gluten-free crackers like Nut Thins and crushed nuts, like cashews or walnuts.)
- Heat your oven to 400 degrees.
- Begin by simmering the two bay leaves in your vegetable stock for about five minutes. Turn off the heat and let the leaves steep in the stock until you are ready to use it, at least five minutes or so.
- Prepare your cauliflower either by boiling it in salted water until tender (original recipe) or steaming it until tender (my preferred method for preserving the most nutrients). Drain and place in the jar of a standard blender or food processor. This step takes anywhere from 15 to 20 minutes, depending on how tender your cauliflower is. Unlike most recipes, a little over done is better than under done for the cauliflower.
- Cook your pasta as you normally would, but not until completely done. Chef Bittman suggests five minutes, which is perfect for whole wheat pasta. I have found that the gluten-free pasta is better at six minutes—a very slight adjustment, but necessary, I think. The point is not to cook the pasta all the way through to al denté because it will finish cooking in the oven. Drain and rinse your pasta in cold water to stop the cooking process. Place the pasta in a greased nine-inch baking dish.
- Remove the bay leaves from the vegetable stock. Puree the cauliflower with the stock, first half-cup of cheese, oil, mustard, nutmeg, salt and pepper, working in batches, if necessary. Pour the sauce over the pasta, toss, and spread evenly in the dish. Top with the second half-cup of cheese and the bread crumbs.
- Bake 20 minutes.
Here’s a tip about preparation of this dish: While the chef of the original dish uses a food processor to make his sauce, I found my blender more useful, in this case. His processor is probably way bigger than mine… maybe yours, too. The blender did the trick in one batch. Be sure to puree until completely smooth.
Many times I serve this dish as the main attraction, but it works as a side dish, too. This dish pairs very well with spinach salad made with fresh fruit like apples and pears and toasted nuts.
Try it with the following easy curry dressing:
Combine one teaspoon of curry powder and one teaspoon crushed whole mustard seeds in a small bowl. Whisk in a quarter-cup of red wine or white wine vinegar, whichever you prefer. I usually go by the season—spring and summer it’s white wine vinegar; fall and winter I want more pungent flavor with red wine vinegar. Add a tablespoon of honey and combine. Whisking constantly, incorporate a quarter-cup peanut, sesame or avocado oil, whatever your preference. Finish with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste.
What spells comfort for you this spring?