I think cauliflower and broccoli are often spoken of in the same breath because they have a similar shape. Each comes in a head that separates out into florets that grow off a central stem. Each relies on its likeness to a tree to get itself into the mouths of toddlers everywhere. And, of course, they do belong to the same big family of cruciferous vegetables that also boasts cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and so many other delicious leafy vegetables. But at the end of this list, they go their separate ways—broccoli snapping and crunching and shining under tamari or lemon, and cauliflower melting with a starchy creaminess that broccoli could never claim. Cauliflower melts into soups and sauces, and it roasts more like a potato, browning and crisping on the outside to protect the creamy flesh of its center.
Cauliflower’s high starch content also inspires those in search of pasta and rice alternatives to transform it into “rice” and “pasta.” I like to call a vegetable a vegetable (what is there to be ashamed of?), but this classic British dish plays on the ability of the cauliflower to play the part of pasta. It’s the most delicious baked mac and cheese, without a mac in sight. Although you might be tempted to serve it as a veggie side, think of it as a main dish. I picked up the tip of infusing the milk from the British food writer Nigel Slater, and that really does make this extra wonderful.
- Yield: 4 Servings
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 bay leaf
- ½ small onion, unchopped
- 2 garlic cloves, halved
- Kosher salt
- 1 large head of cauliflower (about 2 pounds), cut into large uniform florets, stem thinly sliced
- 4 tablespoons (½ stick) unsalted butter, plus more for greasing the dish
- 4 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
- 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, or more to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese (4 ounces)
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ¾ cup panko or rough homemade bread crumbs
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- Heat the milk in a saucepan set over medium heat. Add the bay leaf, onion, and garlic. Bring the milk to a low boil that bubbles on the surface, then remove the pan from the heat, cover, and let the milk infuse for 15 minutes.
- Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower and boil until tender, about 4 minutes. Drain the cauliflower in a colander, shaking it to eliminate excess water. Butter an ovenproof 9 × 9-inch or equivalent baking dish, and pack the cauliflower into it.
- Preheat the oven to 425°F.
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan set over medium heat. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly, until the mixture colors and becomes a nutty-smelling paste, 2 to 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Use a ladle to start adding the hot infused milk to the butter mixture, leaving the bay leaf, onion, and garlic in the pan. Continue adding the milk, whisking to incorporate and prevent the mixture from clumping. When all the milk is in the saucepan, increase the heat to medium-high. Keep cooking and whisking until the mixture comes just to a boil and thickens, 2 to 3 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the paprika, mustard, 1 teaspoon salt, and several grinds of pepper. Stir in the grated Cheddar. Taste the sauce, and adjust the salt and mustard, if necessary. Pour the sauce over the cauliflower, top with the Parmesan cheese, bread crumbs, and a drizzle of olive oil.
- Bake until the sauce bubbles and the bread crumbs are golden, 15 to 20 minutes.