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Cauliflower Gratin With Nutmeg

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Come November, I eagerly hunt for cauliflowers at my farmers' market -- precious and wondrous gifts from Mother Earth.

The cauliflowers grown by local farmers are not the oversized, Popeye-like grocery store variety. They are usually small in size, delicate and crispy. They come in all kinds of different colors (snow-white, orange, purple, lime-green), and shapes (the Romanesque cauliflower pictured above, with its pointy florets, always attracts lots of attention from shoppers!).

Whether they're roasted, sautéed, fried, gently boiled in milk for a luxurious purée, or braised, cauliflowers are utterly delicious. I can honestly say that I look forward to the season all year-long!

Today's gratin is a classic French recipe, but instead of just blanching the cauliflower (as it is normally prepared), I decided to braise it in shallots and wine until perfectly tender -- a step that adds a wonderful dimension to the dish and deepens the subtle flavor of the cauliflower. Once braised, I top the tender florets with a light béchamel sauce made with lots of freshly grated nutmeg. Then I sprinkle the whole thing with a little cave-aged gruyère, pop it in the oven and bake it until golden-brown and bubbly.

Needless to say, resistance is futile!

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Cauliflower Gratin with Nutmeg

serves 4
active time: 45 min

For the cauliflower
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red chili pepper flakes
3 large shallots - peeled, halved and finely sliced
1 large cauliflower (2 1/2 lbs) (1.1 kg) - florets trimmed from stalk and cut in 2" pieces
4 large garlic cloves - skinned and finely chopped
3/4 cup white wine
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste

For the béchamel
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups milk
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
freshly ground nutmeg to taste (use microplane grater)

4 oz (115 g) cave-aged gruyère - coarsely grated
1 medium oval or rectangular ceramic or glass baking dish; or 6 half-cup capacity ramequins - lightly buttered

Preheat oven to 425°F (220ºC).
Step 1: Heat a large heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil, red pepper flakes and shallots and sauté for 2 minutes until the shallots start to soften but not brown. Add the cauliflower and garlic, toss well and sauté for 2 additional minutes until warmed through, tossing only a couple of times. Add the wine and toss well. Then add salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste, toss again. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover pan. Braise cauliflower for 8 to 10 minutes until tender. Uncover pan and sauté at high heat for 1 to 2 minutes until all juices have evaporated. Transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Step 2: In a medium heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, melt the butter. Whisk in the flour and cook, whisking constantly for 1 to 2 minutes until the mixture becomes foamy and the flour becomes golden but not brown. Quickly add the milk and whisk constantly until the mixture is well blended. When the mixture starts bubbling, lower heat and slow-simmer for 6 to 8 minutes until the béchamel has thickened. Add the salt, pepper and nutmeg. Mix well and remove from heat.

Step 3: Pour the béchamel over the cauliflower and sprinkle with the cheese. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes until top is golden-brown. Remove from oven and let cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Cook's note: The gratin can be baked, cooled and refrigerated up to 2 days. To serve, bring to room temperature and bake at 425°F (220ºC) for 8 to 10 minutes until hot.

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