Usually smothered in heavy cream and copious amounts of melty, gooey cheese, gratins are both comfort food and festive special occasion fare.
They’re also rich, heavy, and total gut-busters.
But what if they could be lightened — without sacrificing the luscious quality we love about them?
Leave it to the geniuses behind America’s Test Kitchen to do just that — at least with cauliflower gratin.
Meet “Modern Cauliflower Gratin,” an inventive take on the classic. It’s one of more than 700 innovative recipes in the new cookbook, “Vegetables Illustrated: An Inspiring Guide with 700+ Kitchen-Tested Recipes” by America’s Test Kitchen, of which I received a review copy.
If you’re familiar with Cook’s Illustrated magazine, then you know all too well how meticulous these recipes have been tested until perfected. Although the book is called “Vegetables” illustrated, it doesn’t mean this is a vegetarian cookbook. While vegetables are dominant, many recipes feature meat or seafood, or make use of chicken broth.
Find everything from “Almost Hands-Free Risotto with Fava Beans, Peas, and Arugula” (cooked in a Dutch oven with the lid on and almost all the liquid added to the rice at the start) and “Nori-Crusted Salmon” (made with home-made nori powder to create a crisp, flavorful crust on the fillets) to “Foolproof Boiled Corn with Chili-Lime Salt” (done with a method similar to boiling eggs, in which the corn is added to boiling water, the burner turned off and the corn left to sit until done).
This cauliflower gratin is plenty creamy — despite having no milk or cream in it. Instead, the cauliflower stems are boiled until very soft, then blitzed in a blender to create a thick smooth sauce that’s enriched with Parmesan cheese.
This sauce gets tossed with steamed cauliflower florets that go into a baking pan. Before the gratin is baked, it gets a crunchy topping of panko and more Parmesan.
The gratin is not completely virtuous, as there is one stick of butter in it. However, it still tastes much lighter than a conventional gratin.
What’s more, because heavy cream doesn’t obscure everything, you actually taste the nutty flavor of the cauliflower more intensely than you would normally.
After baking and digging into the dish, I did notice a slight residual puddle or two of water at the bottom of the pan. I’m not sure if it came from the sauce separating slightly or what. No matter, it didn’t detract from the dish at all. Just be sure to puree the cauliflower well in the blende, and don’t add much — if any — extra water if you can help it.
Because this is made with cauliflower rather than potatoes, this is a side dish perfect for those who may be on a low-carb or keto diet, too.
It’s a gratin that you can enjoy a big helping of without feeling the need to take a nap afterward.
Bookmark it; you’ll definitely want to make it come Thanksgiving or Christmas — if not much sooner.
Modern Cauliflower Gratin
(Serves 8 to 10)
8 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated (1 cup)
2 heads cauliflower (2 pounds each), cut into 1 1/2-inch florets, stems halved lengthwise then sliced thin crosswise, cores sliced thin (12 cups florets and 3 cups stems and cores)
Salt and pepper
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Pinch cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon cornstarch
1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 400 degrees. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a 10-inch skillet over medium heat. Add panko and cook, stirring frequently, until golden brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Transfer to bowl and let cool. Once cool, add 1/2 cup Parmesan and toss to combine; set aside.
Combine sliced cauliflower stems and cores, 2 cups florets, 3 cups water, and remaining 6 tablespoons butter in Dutch oven and bring to boil over high heat. Place remaining florets in steamer basket. Once mixture is boiling, place steamer basket in pot, cover, and reduce heat to medium. Steam florets in basket until translucent and paring knife slips easily in and out of stem ends, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove steamer basket and set aside florets to drain. Re-cover pot, reduce heat to low, and continue to cook stem mixture until very soft, about 10 minutes. Transfer drained florets to 13-by-9-inch baking dish.
Transfer stem mixture and cooking liquid to blender and add 2 teaspoons salt, 1/2 teaspoon pepper, dry mustard, nutmeg, cayenne, and remaining 1/2 cup Parmesan. Process until smooth and velvety, about 1 minute (puree should be pourable; adjust consistency with additional water as needed). Combine cornstarch and 1 teaspoon water in small bowl, whisking with fork to dissolve; then, with blender running, add cornstarch slurry to blender. Season cauliflower puree with salt and pepper to taste. Pour puree over cauliflower florets in dish and toss gently to coat (it will be quite loose), then smooth top with spatula.
Scatter panko mixture evenly over top. Transfer dish to oven and bake until sauce bubbles around edges, 13 to 15 minutes. Let stand 20 to 25 minutes. Sprinkle with chives, and serve.
Note: When buying cauliflower for this recipe, look for heads without many leaves. If your cauliflower does have a lot of leaves, buy slightly larger heads — about 2 1/4 pounds each. This recipe can be halved to serve four to six; cook the cauliflower in a large saucepan and bake the gratin in an 8-inch square baking pan.
From “Cook’s Illustrated Vegetables Illustrated” by America’s Test Kitchen
More Cauliflower Recipes to Try: Cauliflower Salad with Eggs and Anchovies
And: Kung Pao Cauliflower