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Cauliflower Broccoli Flan with Spinach Bechamel

May 9, 2008

I’m not really sure why this is called a flan. It didn’t really seem like flan to me, but perhaps I didn’t make it quite right. Still, it was delicious, and I highly recommend you make room on your plate for this dish as soon as possible. Like Chicken Florentine, this side dish can pretend be very healthy, what with all the vegetables. However, beneath its green and vitamin-filled-seeming appearance lurks decadence: creamy, cheesy, wonderful decadence.

I first came across this recipe a few years ago. A housemate at the time discovered it in the May 2005 issue of Bon Appetit, and she raved about it non-stop. She made it at least three times in the short few months I lived with her, and when I moved out, she realized she hadn’t copied the recipe and begged me to email it to her. Yet despite her raves, I never thought to make it myself. I was still feeling undecided about cauliflower, so I promptly forgot about it. And for some reason I have yet to understand, a few weeks ago I remembered it. My feelings about cauliflower had since become decisively positive, so I decided I had to try it out, to see what all the fuss was about.

All the fuss was about spinach bechamel. Holy crap, that is some delicious stuff. That is some stuff I want to make again and again, to put on pasta, or pour over chicken, or, um, eat straight from the pan. That is thick and flavorful and I’m sure is the reason that when my doctor told me my weight yesterday during my check up I almost fell over.

According to Bon Appetit, this is an Italian dish from Florence, and the Italian name is way cooler: Sformato di Cavolfiore e Broccolo con Balsamella di Spinaci. It is intended to be an appetizer, or antipasto, or whatever those Italians eat before the pasta course. But I don’t have a pasta course, and I don’t have antipasto. I just have dinner, so I made it as a side dish to serve with sirloin.

I almost never cook steak. I’m not a huge red meat eater, but when I was contemplating what would go well with this dish, steak just seemed necessary. So I bought a big, red piece of sirloin from the butcher, rubbed it with some kind of Moroccan spice rub I found on our spice rack, and threw it on the seldom-used grill pan.

I cooked it for about four minutes on each side, and as you can probably tell from the first picture, it was quite rare. Good thing I like my steak that pink, because it was also drool-inducingly good. But I am not here to talk about the steak. And frankly, the steak was not the star of that dinner. The cauliflower flan was that good, and it stood up quite well to a manly steak.
Cauliflower and Broccoli Flan with Spinach Bechamel

  • 1 large head of cauliflower, cut into small florets
  • 1 large head of broccoli, cut into small florets
  • 1 large bag of spinach (the recipe called for baby, but I used regular spinach and just cut it up before cooking)
  • about 1 T. olive oil
  • 6 T. butter (yeah, you heard me, six)
  • 1/4 c. all purpose flour (I only had white whole wheat, which probably contributed to the thickness of the sauce, but in no way diminished the flavor)
  • 2/3 c. whole milk
  • 2/3 c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat the oven to 350F. Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil, and cook the cauliflower and broccoli until they are just tender, probably about five minutes. Drain the vegetables, reserving about 2/3 cup of the cooking water, and set them aside to cool.

They are so lovely and brightly colored, I had to take a picture to share. Enjoy their healthful properties now, because they will soon be swimming in heavy sauce. Yeah, baby.

Chop the spinach up into smallish bits, discarding tough stems. Heat a little bit of olive oil in a large skillet, and when it’s nice and hot, add the spinach in large handfuls and cook until wilted. Add more handfuls as you have more room in the skillet, until all of the spinach is cooked through and wilted. Be amazed at how a ginormous pile of spinach can be reduced to one-fifth its size in a matter of minutes.

Turn all that cooked spinach out onto a cutting board and let it cool for a few minutes. Then chop it up as finely as you can. Let it sit to cool off a bit more.

Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once its melted and the foaming has subsided, whisk in the flour. When you have a smooth paste, slowly whisk in the milk and the reserved cooking liquid. Keep whisking the sauce over medium heat until it thickens up and is very gently boiling. Then remove from the heat and stir in the spinach and the cheese, and a bit of salt (of course). Taste it, and then pick yourself up off from the floor and resist the urge to eat the entire pan with a spoon.

The original recipe says at this point that you should crumble the cauliflower and spinach into a bowl. I did not do this, but I might recommend that you do. Or chop it up into smaller bits. I think the texture might have been a little nicer if I had done this, but alas, I was lazy and a little bit fuzzy headed from tasting the bechamel. So, you know, try to remember to break up the vegetables a bit, but it won’t kill you if you don’t. Either way, stir the bechamel sauce into the vegetable mixture, and pour it out into a buttered baking dish. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes. The recipe says its supposed to puff up a bit, but mine did not. It was still quite good, though, so I’m ok with the lack of puffiness. You might also put it under the broiler for a minute or two at the end of its cooking time, to give the top a nice crustiness. I didn’t do this either, but in the future, I probably will.

So yes, I do see what the fuss is about. And I also see that I probably should stay away from vegetables coated in cream, which is such a shame, since it took me three years to re-discover this recipe. If you’re willing to live a little decadently, though, and you like your vegetables to masquerade as indulgence, I say go ahead. Cook up some sformato, and eat it with a nice juicy steak. Then maybe go drink some scotch and smoke some cigarettes. Live it up. Vegetables are awesome.

One Comment leave one →
  1. kim e. permalink
    May 9, 2008 5:30 pm

    Mmm…there is nothing better than fresh vegetables with the addition of such sinful, delectable ingredients, YUM! I think that I’ll have to try this too :)

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