- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 29, 2005

During the past few months, I have felt as if I were running a small bed-and-breakfast. When I mentioned to a friend that I was cleaning our guest room yet again, she quickly replied, “That’s what fall in New England is all about.”

I admit that I love welcoming good friends to our home for overnight visits. Typically, such stays involve planning and cooking more than one meal, but the reward lies in the unrushed conversations around the table that longer visits encourage.

I relish having time to catch up with these guests, so I try to design menus that don’t keep me at the stove too long. Recipes that can be made in advance or that can be prepared quickly at the last minute are my favorites.

For one such menu, I pan-grilled garlic-rubbed steaks (total cooking time 10 minutes) and paired them with a cauliflower gratin that was made early in the day and reheated at serving time. Blanched green beans and a salad rounded out the night’s offerings.

The gratin was the sleeper hit. Cauliflower, which Mark Twain once described as “cabbage with a college education,” is an underused cold-weather vegetable with all kinds of potential. It does, indeed, have a mild cabbagelike taste, but it also boasts a slightly nutty quality.



For this gratin, I tossed cooked cauliflower florets with creme fraiche and Gruyere, then baked the vegetables under a topping of bread crumbs and hazelnuts. When done, the crust was golden and the florets beneath were tender and soft. A garnish of chives added a splash of color.

This delectable cauliflower creation is a fine partner for beefsteaks but also works well as an accompaniment to sauteed chicken breasts, broiled lamb chops or pan-fried pork chops.

With the holidays around the corner, many of you will be organizing meals for overnight guests, and you might just find this make-ahead dish a tempting addition to your menus.

Cauliflower gratin with Gruyere and hazelnuts

Butter for greasing the baking dish

1 medium cauliflower (2½ to 23/4 pounds)

Salt

½ cup creme fraiche (recipe follows)

3/4 cup (3 ounces) grated Gruyere cheese

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons dry, unflavored bread crumbs

3 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted and coarsely chopped (see note)

2 tablespoons chopped chives or flat-leaf parsley for garnish

Butter a 2-quart oven-to-table baking dish or gratin pan. Set aside.

Cut off and discard base of cauliflower, then cut the head into small, individual florets. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add cauliflower florets to pot and cook until tender (but not mushy) when pierced with a sharp knife, about 5 minutes. Drain florets and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel.

Place cauliflower in prepared dish and toss with creme fraiche and half of the cheese. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Sprinkle remaining cheese over cauliflower, then top with bread crumbs and hazelnuts. Bake on center rack of preheated 375-degree oven until cheese has melted and bread crumbs and nuts are golden, 20 to 25 minutes or more. Garnish with chives or parsley. Makes 5 to 6 servings.

CREME FRAICHE

Creme fraiche is available in most supermarkets. If you can’t find it, the following recipe works well. It needs to be made at least 6 hours in advance.

1 cup heavy whipping cream

1/3 cup sour cream

Whisk cream and sour cream together in a medium nonreactive bowl. Let stand at room temperature until thickened, 6 hours or longer. Cover and refrigerate. (Creme fraiche can be stored up to 1 week, covered, in refrigerator.) Makes about 11/3 cups.

Note: To toast hazelnuts, spread on a rimmed baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350-degree oven until browned and fragrant, 6 to 8 minutes. Remove and, when cool enough to handle, place nuts in a kitchen towel and rub together to remove as much of the skins as possible.

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