Gratin might be the ultimate comfort food

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POSTFebruary 16, 2014 

Plenty of oven-baked dishes are worth romanticizing about. Their aromas and warmth can permeate an entire home.

A gratin, though, can do even more. It emerges from the oven not only fragrant and bubbling hot but with a browned, crisp crust crowning the luxurious goodness underneath.

In this gratin, a bechamel in place of cream is a wonderful way to achieve a creamy, luscious result that isn’t overly rich. If you’d like something cheesier, you can stir an additional 1/4 to 1/2 cup of grated cheese — more Parmigiano-Reggiano or something different, such as Gruyere or fontina — into the finished bechamel.

The gratin can be refrigerated for up to 2 days. Reheat in a 375-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, until warmed through.

CAULIFLOWER-PASTA GRATIN

6 servings

3 1/2 cups whole milk

1 sprig rosemary

1 clove garlic, smashed or crushed

1 teaspoon fine sea salt, plus more for the pasta cooking water

1-pound head cauliflower

4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter

1/4 cup flour

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, or more as needed

Pinch ground mace (may substitute nutmeg)

12 ounces dried whole-wheat fusilli (may substitute other small-shaped pasta, or use farro pasta)

1 1/2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated (may substitute pecorino-Romano cheese)

Heat the milk in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring occasionally, just until bubbles begin to appear. Add the rosemary and garlic; remove from the heat to steep for 20 minutes. Strain through a fine-mesh strainer into a liquid measuring cup, discarding the solids.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Separate/cut the cauliflower florets and core into bite-size pieces, then add to the boiling water; cook for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cauliflower is just tender. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the cauliflower pieces to a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, spreading them in a single layer. Reserve the cooking water in the pot to cook the pasta.

Preheat the oven to 400.

Melt the butter in a medium, heavy saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the flour and cook for several minutes to form a smooth roux. Gradually add the steeped milk, whisking until smooth. Increase the heat to medium; once the mixture is bubbling, whisk for about 20 minutes to form a bechamel sauce thick enough to coat the back of a spoon. Season with the teaspoon of salt, the black pepper and mace. Turn off the heat.

About 10 minutes into the cooking of the sauce, return the large pot of salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook just until al dente. Drain, then add to the baking dish with the cauliflower.

Whisk the bechamel to an even smoothness, if needed; pour evenly over the cauliflower and pasta, then fold gently to incorporate. Sprinkle evenly with cheese and with black pepper, if desired. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until the gratin is bubbling, the cheese is melted and the exposed bits of pasta are browned.

Wait for 5 to 10 minutes before serving.

Nutrition per serving: 420 calories, 17 g protein, 54 g carbohydrates, 16 g fat, 9 g saturated fat, 40 mg cholesterol, 540 mg sodium, 7 g dietary fiber, 10 g sugar

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