18. October 2013 · Comments Off on On Sneaky Broccoli · Categories: Cooking, Food · Tags: , , ,

Broccoli by Flickr user whologwhy, Creative Commons licenseBroccoli is not, regrettably, some people’s favorite vegetable. All the brassicas seem to divide eaters into the love ’em or hate ’em camp. Which is sad, because all of the veggies in this family are loaded with nutrition – Vitamin C, Vitamin A, antioxidants, and soluble fiber. So long as you don’t boil the snot out of ’em and dump the cooking liquid with all of its leached nutrients, cruciform vegetables are plenty good for you.

Broccoli and cauliflower especially seem to suffer from not only the curse of crucifoms in general, but also a textural shortcoming due to the fact that the edible parts are in essence immature flower heads. They have a tendency to go mealy and/or get waterlogged in cooking. Likewise, undercooked they’re fibrous and chewy, which some find unpleasant. Roasting can help with some of these shortcomings, since high-temp cooking will help develop more complex flavors and dry out some of the moisture. But you’re still left with a pretty plain-jane vegetable unless you take further steps.

A great cold-weather dish using brassicas and root vegetables is the gratin. Simply explained, it’s a baked dish characterized by a cheese and breadcrumb topping, where the main ingredient is frequently combined with a Bechamel-based sauce. Even avowed broccoli haters like a good gratin. Here’s a basic recipe that can be modified in a number of ways for variety.

Vegetable Gratin

Ingredients:
2 lbs fresh broccoli or cauliflower heads, cut into small florets, or 2 lbs of Brussels sprouts, halved
3 tbsp unsalted butter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
1 c grated Gruyere or sharp Cheddar cheese
1 tbsp butter or olive oil
1/2 c panko-style breadcrumbs

Prep time: 15 minutes, Cook time: 30 minutes

Heat oven to 450F. Butter (or spray with non-stick spray) an 8x8x2 baking dish. Put 2 cups of water and a collapsible steamer basket into a large saucepan over high heat and bring to boil.

Chop vegetables as needed.

Place a medium saucepan over medium heat, and add 3 tbsp butter to melt. After butter is melted and foamy, whisk in flour until smooth and cook for 1-2 minutes, whisking continually, until the mixture becomes aromatic. Do not let the flour brown. Gradually whisk in the milk, then stir in the salt and nutmeg. Increase the heat to medium-high and bring to a simmer. Whisk thoroughly, reduce heat to a low simmer, and cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is thickened – about 8-10 minutes.

While sauce is thickening, put vegetables into steamer and steam until just starting to turn tender – about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and immediately fill into baking dish. Do not overcook, or the vegetables will be mealy after baking.

When sauce is thickened, sprinkle vegetables with half the shredded cheese, then pour over the sauce.

Place a medium skillet over medium heat and add the remaining butter (or olive oil). When hot, mix in the bread crumbs and toss until just lightly browned. Remove from heat.

Top dish with remaining cheese, then breadcrumbs. Place in oven on center rack and bake for 20 minutes until browned and bubbling.

Serves 4

Variations: Thinly slice 2 lbs of waxy potatoes, layer them in the baking dish with shredded cheese in between and extend the baking time to 25-30 minutes, and you’ve got potatoes au gratin. Substitute crumbled bleu cheese for the shredded. Mix the Gruyere cheese with the bechamel instead of sprinkling it on top to make Sauce Mornay. Add a tablespoon of Dijon mustard and a half teaspoon of sherry vinegar to make Sauce Moutarde, which goes great with broccoli.