Unexpected deliciousness, in casserole form
Last week felt like the beginning of casserole season in Boston: Cool, crisp days, leaves falling from trees, and sweaters unearthed from boxes in the back of the closet. My favorite time of year. And what happens? Suddenly, the temperatures shoot back up into the 80s, and turning the oven on starts to sound like less of a good idea. What is up, Boston? Why do you toy with my emotions? Why do you confuse my wardrobe, not to mention by immune system?
No matter. Last week I got in not just one but TWO casseroles, in that brief and glorious 50 degree period. The sad thing I’ve realized about casseroles is that they really don’t photograph well, as evidenced above. That odd monochromatic agglomeration of vegetables belies how absolutely and unexpectedly wonderful it was. I think I can honestly say that was one of the weirdest casseroles I’ve ever made. In fact, I had little faith, as I was tossing the cauliflower and beef together in cheese sauce, that it was even going to be edible. But lo, when I pulled it out of the oven it was a vision of cheesy, crusty, crunchy vegetable goodness. I was shocked. Happily and gluttonously shocked. I’m going to have to be very careful about these kinds of casseroles unless I can figure out how to work gym-going back into my schedule.
This unusual cauliflower casserole was actually one of those random refrigerator dinners: I hunted around in the freezer and the crisper and the cheese drawer until I had in front of me an odd assortment of foodstuffs that I thought could potentially become a dinner. It might gross you out to know that the ground beef was actually frozen leftover hamburger meat from, well, from a really long time ago. I’ll just leave it at that. It has been mixed with worcestershire and garlic powder and other tasty things and formed into hamburger patties before we realized that the sheer amount of meat already on the grill precluded the need for hamburgers, and its been in the freezer ever since. I’m sorry if you’re one of those people who shuns frozen meat stuffs, especially old frozen meat stuffs. But this was really, really good. Serious comfort food.
So what the hell is it, you ask? This was a cauliflower, potato, and ground beef gratin, basically. I had beautiful yellow cauliflower and perfect tiny little white potatoes from the farmer’s market, and the aforementioned frozen hamburger meat. I had a chunk of gruyere, half a container of heavy cream, and a dream. Clearly, a dream of something warm and creamy and probably not very good for me. Amelia Bedelia said it reminded her of the old country.
Cauliflower, Potato, and Ground Beef Gratin (from the old country)
- 1 head of yellow cauliflower (you could use white, but the yellow added a nice sweetness, and also, some color), chopped into bite-sized pieces
- 4 or 5 small white potatoes
- 1/2 lb. ground beef
- 1 T. worchestershire sauce
- 1 tsp. garlic powder
- 1 T. butter
- 1 T. flour
- 1 c. heavy cream
- 3/4 c. grated gruyere
- 1/4 c. grated parmesan
- 1/4 c. breadcrumbs
- 1/2 c. smoked mozzarella
If you don’t have the foresight to have made hamburgers in July (oops, I gave it away!), you should mix the ground beef up with the worchestershire and garlic powder, and perhaps a bit of salt and pepper.
Heat the oven to 375F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and in the meantime, cheat by steaming your potatoes in the microwave. Just wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, stab them a few times with a fork, and microwave them for about four or five minutes. They will be really hot when they come out, so be careful! Wait for them to cool off a bit, and then slice the potatoes into half inch slices. They will probably be a little crumbly, which is perfectly ok.
Once the water is boiling, add the cauliflower and cook for between two and six minutes. Why the discrepancy? If you want the cauliflower to retain a little crunch in the finished dish, boil it for a shorter time. If you prefer the cauliflower to be soft and creamy, boil longer. Set the cauliflower and potatoes aside to cool off a little.
Heat a skillet over medium heat, and add the ground beef. Cook it for about seven or eight minutes, breaking it up with the back of a spoon, until it’s no longer pink. Then remove the beef to another bowl or plate while you use the beefy skillet to make a cheesy bechamel (I guess technically its a mornay sauce).
Heat the butter over medium heat, and once its melted and stopped sizzling, whisk in the flour to create a beefy roux. Slowly add the heavy cream (maybe it should be at room temperature or something), whisking and whisking until everything is well mixed. Then slowly add the gruyere and parmesan, continually whisking so the cheese blends smoothly. Let it cook, stirring occasionally, until its nice and thick, and then season it with a bit of salt and pepper.
Now, just mix everything up all together in a shallow baking dish (I guess a deeper casserole dish would work, too). Top the mixture with breadcrumbs and grated smoked mozzarella, and stick it in the oven for about 35 to 40 minutes.
Yeah, it sounds totally weird, I know. But I’m telling you, it was sooo good, in a very midwestern 1950s kind of way. Maybe that’s what Amelia meant by the old country.
And that other casserole?
I’m still a little undecided about this one. It was full of amazing vegetables, like eggplant and zucchini and tomatoes. The breadcrumb/egg crust kind of mixture suffused the whole thing in a very interesting, tasty treat kind of way. But it seemed kind of bland. The recipe was another one from Eating Well. I’m not really ready it to sell it down the river quite yet, but I think it needs a little tweaking to reach true casserole perfection. The good thing about this one? All the vegetables made me feel very virtuous, which is a nice thing to feel considering how many french fries I’ve eaten lately. Sigh.