One of the things I loved best about my time in London when I was studying at Le Cordon Bleu was the way my horizons were expanded in so many different areas. One of these was the wide and varied world of cheese. I had always liked cheese...and for the most part grew up eating natural cheeses (as opposed to processed)—but the cheeses of my childhood were of a very limited scope. Run-of-the-mill American Cheddar, Colby, "Swiss", or the occasional Jack or Muenster were about all I had ever had. Once I discovered the "cheese hall" (within the "food hall") at Selfridges department store, it became one of my regular haunts. Unfortunately there wasn't time enough to taste all of the amazing cheeses that were available there, but I did try to bring home one different cheese each week to sample.
In addition to the astonishing array at Selfridges, I was introduced to new cheeses in my classes and at the homes of friends. Manchego—a Spanish sheep's milk cheese—was one of the first "new" cheeses I tasted. Served to me by a friend, it is probably the reason I entered the Selfridges cheese hall in the first place (to purchase some of this delicious cheese for myself). I have been in love with it ever since. Several years ago, when Food & Wine published an issue featuring the foods of Spain, I immediately noticed this recipe for a rich Manchego and cauliflower gratin.
As far as style is concerned, this gratin is a cousin to the Sweet Potato and Mushroom Gratin that I posted back in November. Both gratins begin by arranging a snug layer of cooked vegetables in a wide, shallow baking dish.
|Cauliflower florets and caramelized onions arranged in the gratin|
But instead of drizzling the vegetables with heavy cream and topping with breadcrumbs and cheese (as for the sweet potato gratin), the cooked cauliflower is napped with a flavorful Manchego-laced béchamel.
|Vegetables topped with Manchego sauce and more grated Manchego |
mixed with smoked paprika and chopped toasted almonds.
Many different kinds of vegetables can be treated in a similar manner. Simply cook your vegetable of choice to the desired tenderness, spread in a gratin and top with the sauce (and breadcrumbs...or cheese...or a combination...). Or, the vegetables can be combined with the béchamel before they are put into the baking dish. The scratch version of the green bean casserole that I posted a couple of years ago is nothing more than this style of gratin.
Besides the Manchego, there is one other thing that makes this particular gratin a stand out. The milk that is used to make the béchamel is infused with the flavor of toasted almonds. After toasting, the warm almonds are placed in the food processor with steaming hot half and half. This mixture is then processed until the almonds are as finely ground as possible and the hot liquid is left to steep for a few minutes. The almonds are then strained out—leaving behind a delicious liquid that is fragrant with almond.
I teach this recipe in a Spanish Tapas class that is in my regular rotation of classes. Besides Manchego and almonds, it contains Smoked Paprika—making it a great showcase for traditional Spanish ingredients.
Often I am asked if the ground almonds can just be left in the half and half (I guess to some it seems wasteful to strain them out). I have never done this, and would not be inclined to. I think the resulting sauce would have an unpleasant, mealy texture. The appearance too, would leave something to be desired. I suppose that you could simply omit this step and use plain half and half. If you do this, you will not need as much half and half because some of it is absorbed by the almonds during the steeping process—use 1/2 cup of plain half and half instead, adding a bit more if the béchamel seems a too thick.
I love this gratin but for some reason haven't made it at home for a while. Recently, when I found myself with the remains of a very large head of cauliflower, I remembered this dish. We enjoyed it as a vegetarian entrée for dinner. Paired with a green salad filled with apples and raisins, it was just the thing for a cold winter evening.
But if dinner isn't dinner for you without animal protein, you can serve it as a true side dish—it would be excellent with a grilled or pan-seared steak. And if you have never tasted Manchego cheese, making this gratin is a great excuse to go out and buy some. Although, once you taste it, you may suddenly find that you don't have enough cheese left to make the gratin....
Cauliflower Gratin with Manchego & Almond Sauce
3/4 cup half-and-half
1/2 cup plus 2 T. whole roasted almonds with skin (3 ounces)
2 T. shredded Manchego (1/2 ounce)
1/4 t. smoked Spanish paprika
1 2-lb. Head of cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2-inch florets
2 T. unsalted butter
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 T. unsalted butter
2 T. flour
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup shredded Manchego (3 ounces)Pinch of nutmeg
Salt & Pepper
Preheat the oven to 400°. Generously butter a shallow 2-quart gratin dish.
In a small saucepan, heat the half-and-half until steaming. Transfer to the food processor and add 1/2 cup of the almonds. Process until the almonds are finely ground. Let stand for 10 minutes. Strain through a fine mesh strainer, pressing hard on the almonds to extract as much liquid as possible. Discard the ground almonds.
While the almond milk steeps, coarsely chop the remaining 2 T. of almonds and combine with 2 T. of the Manchego and the paprika. Set aside.
In a large skillet, bring 1/2 inch of salted water to a boil. Add the cauliflower, cover and cook over high heat until crisp-tender—about 4 minutes. Drain the cauliflower in a colander and set aside. Wipe out the skillet and melt 2 T. of butter in the skillet. Add the onion and cook over medium to medium-high, stirring occasionally, until tender and beginning to caramelize—about 5 minutes. Add the cauliflower and continue to cook, stirring, until the cauliflower begins to caramelize in spots—2 minutes or so. Season with salt and pepper and transfer to the buttered gratin dish.
While the vegetables cook, prepare the béchamel. In a small saucepan, bring the milk to a simmer; keep hot. In a medium saucepan, melt 2 T. of butter over medium heat. When the foam subsides, whisk in the flour. Cook stirring constantly for a few minutes—the roux will be bubbly and straw yellow. Remove from the heat and pour in the hot milk, whisking constantly until smooth—it will thicken immediately. Add the reserved almond milk. Return to the heat and stir constantly until the sauce returns to a simmer. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the nutmeg. Stir in 3/4 cup of Manchego, mixing just to distribute the cheese—it doesn't need to melt. Taste and correct the seasoning.
Spread the Manchego sauce over the vegetables in the gratin dish. Sprinkle with the reserved almond/cheese/paprika mixture. Bake for 20 minutes or until bubbling and browned on top. Let stand 10 minutes before serving. Serves 6 to 8 as a side dish, or 4 as a vegetarian entrée (serve with a green salad and some crusty bread).
(Recipe from Food & Wine, February 2005)