Does it still count as a vegetable when it's covered in béchamel and bacon?
Growing up with a mom who, consistently, night after night, created delicious meals for her family, meant my sister and I truly looked forward to coming to the table at the end of every day. (Dad, I don't want you to feel left out here! #popsbologneseforlife!! - but I'm gonna give this one to mom.)
One meal we not only looked forward to, but repeatedly requested, was cauliflower gratin.
Yes, that's right, two gap-toothed girls putting in orders for a cruciferous vegetable you probably couldn't serve up to most wary wee ones, even if you dipped it in chocolate, rolled it in Pop Rocks and told them it was 'trending.' But as far as I can remember, cauliflower gratin was an almost weekly occurrence in our home, and it never, ever got old.
Mom's a clever lady though and she knew a thing or two about passing off what may have been deemed a vaguely smelly, questionably-textured and decidedly albino vegetable, as food worthy of request, to her children. Two words: Béchamel and bacon. Oh. Yes.
When mom pulled the piping hot Pyrex dish from the oven, I could smell the creamy, dreamy sauce and the crisp, browned bacon from my room upstairs. That's pretty much all it took for me to put down the landline, log out of AOL instant messenger and turn off Ace of Base - dinner was on the table.
These days, I can't do béchamel and bacon on a regular basis, because, well, I'm not 10 and somewhere along the line, dairy and my insides got into an argument they couldn't resolve. I can still, however, do cauliflower, and on a regular basis, at that.
Set oven to 425* F.
Trim the cauliflower heads, separate them into small florets, and divide the florets into two piles.
Spread half the florets onto a lined baking sheet and drizzle them with coconut oil. It's consistently been about 90 degrees in my apartment, so my coconut oil has been in liquid form since Memorial Day, but if yours is solid, just give it a quick melt. Season the florets with Ras el Hanout, chili flakes, salt and pepper and toss everything to combine. Roast for about 25 minutes, until nicely browned, giving everything a toss about halfway through.
While you're roasting, work on the purée. Using a steamer basket, steam the reserved cauliflower for about 8 minutes, until tender but not mushy.
On very low heat, melt the butter in a sauce pot and then allow it to brown. Watch the butter carefully. Once you start to see brown flecks and your kitchen smells wonderfully nutty, you're good. The butter will burn very quickly, so this is not a time to abandon your post.
In a food processor, blender or your Vitamix, combine the steamed cauliflower and browned butter, along with salt and pepper to taste. Blend until you achieve a fine purée. You can always add just a touch of the hot water from the pot, to aid in this.
Finally sauté your shallots in a pan with coconut oil on low-medium heat, until caramelized and slightly crisp.
To assemble the dish, start with some purée on the plate, then top with some of the roasted florets and crispy shallots, Sprinkle over a few toasted pine nuts and some fresh cilantro. Then, using your vegetable peeler, shave the rainbow chard stems on top.** Squeeze the lime over the dish.
Though I may have ditched the cream and pork (along with the outdated technology and musical stylings of my youth), the fundamental love for a dish that highlights cauliflower is still there.
But mom, if you're reading this, I won't be mad if dinner gets a little nostalgic next time I come home! You handle the cauliflower, I'll handle the playlist.
Consider this a request.
*Note: Ras el Hanout is not a fictional supervillain, but instead a North African spice blend featuring cinnamon, nutmeg and cumin among other warming spices. You can find it at any purveyor of fine spices or Whole Foods.
**Note: I love rainbow chard raw - it has a mildly bitter but altogether refreshing quality. If you want to eliminate some of that bitterness, you can certainly sauté it first.