Provençal Cauliflower Gratin: A Dazzling Vegetarian Dish
The wonderful vegetable casseroles of southeastern France, particularly of Provence and Savoie, known as “Gratin” range from Au Gratin Potatoes made with either milk (“scalloped” in American terminology) or chicken broth (“Pommes Savoyarde”) to Cauliflower Gratin (“Gratin de Choux Fleur”) to eggplant gratin (Gratin d’Aubergine) to Provençal Tomatoes (Tomates Provençal). All share cheese and breadcrumbs and are baked in shallow dishes. All are delicious and satisfying.
Here’s a colorful summer Provençal version based on potatoes baked in milk with cheese, but topped with thick slices of tomato, breadcrumbs and olive oil that melt into the casserole. It’s sort of a hybrid of cauliflower au gratin and Tomates Provençal. In a way it’s the best of both worlds, with both Mediterranean and more inland French elements.
The recipe serves six to eight as a side dish for dinner or as a lunch accompanied by a salad. Red wine goes with this dish, Côtes du Rhône being the most regionally appropriate.
1 medium-large cauliflower
2 cups (loose) grated Gruyère and/or other Swiss cheese (1/4-1/3 pound), part saved for topping
1/2 teaspoon salt for the cauliflower plus 3/4 teaspoon for the sauce
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups whole milk
1/8 teaspoon white or black pepper
1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
4 large or 6 Roma-type tomatoes, as ripe as possible
1/2 cup plain breadcrumbs moistened with 2 tablespoons olive oil plus 1/4 teaspoon of salt
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped parsley for topping
Set the oven for 375 degrees.
Cut the cauliflower into 1-1/2-inch flowerets, and steam it 3 minutes or until just tender. Test for doneness with a fork or tooth pick. Place the steamed vegetable in an attractive casserole dish large enough to make a tightly packed single layer. Sprinkle it with about 1/2 teaspoon of salt. Distribute about three-quarters of the grated cheeses evenly over the vegetable.
Prepare the béchamel sauce: In a heavy pan over a medium setting heat the olive oil with the flour, and cook the mixture for 2 minutes, stirring. With a whisk, mix in the milk, raise the heat a little and continue to whisk until the sauce comes to a boil. Let it simmer until thickened, 2-3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in 3/4 teaspoon salt, plus the pepper and nutmeg. (If the vegetable is still being steamed, let the sauce cool, whisking it from to time to time so that a skin does not form.)
When the vegetable is prepared and the cheese is on it, spoon the sauce evenly over top. Remove tough core from the tomatoes and slice tomatoes crosswise a little over 1/4-inch thick. Lay slices close to each other on top of the cauliflower. Sprinkle lightly with salt.
In a bowl, mix the breadcrumbs with the olive oil, salt and reserved cheese. Distribute the mixture evenly over the tomatoes. Finish by drizzling a little olive oil over the topping. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Bake on a middle shelf of the oven until the sauce is bubbling, the tomatoes soften, and the surface begins to brown, about 30-40 minutes. Serve hot. Or the dish can be cooled, refrigerated, and re-baked long enough to heat through.