Saffron Cauliflower Gratin (Gratin de Chou Fleur au Safran)
Saffron is not a standard addition to cauliflower gratin, but I've seen it used at several upscale restaurants in Paris. Gratin de chou-fleur is a very common French dish, so the addition of saffron creates a new dimension of color and aroma.
As a child, I remember being served this side dish quite frequently during the winter. Cauliflower may not be considered by some as a comfort food, but when it's cooked in a béchamel sauce and smothered in mozzarella cheese, it will make even the most die-hard cauliflower haters reconsider their position.
Yields: 82 whole cauliflowers
1/3 cup white vinegar
8 tablespoons butter, diced
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
4-1/2 cups whole milk, warmed for 2 minutes in the microwave
16 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese , thinly sliced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper, freshly ground
3/4 teaspoon saffron threads
1 tablespoon flat-leaf parsley leaves, finely chopped
Soaking the cauliflower:
To cut the head of the cauliflowers into florets, removestem and discard the green leaves and the stem of the head. Cut into wedges from the bottom. Pull and separate the small florets manually.
Place the florets in a bowl, cover them with water and add the white vinegar. Stir well. Soak for 5 minutes, then drain.
Fill a pot with cold water until it barely touches the steamer level. It's important to start with cold water so the cauliflower cooks evenly. Place the florets in the steamer, bring the water to a boil and reduce the heat to medium-high. Steam for about 15-20 minutes. The cauliflower should be fork-tender (not mushy) but still firm. Remove from the steamer. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Allow to cool a little.
Prepping the saffron:
In a mortar and pestle, grind the saffron threads. Add about 1/4 cup of milk. Set aside.
In a saucepan, melt 8 tablespoons of butter over medium-low; you don't want the butter to burn. Bring the heat back up to medium-high (the butter should be hot and golden) and add the flour. Keep stirring manually with a whisk for approximately 2-3 minutes. The flour should absorb the butter instantly and form a paste. Add the milk in 3 stages. Increase the heat while constantly stirring for about 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low. Add about 8 ounces of the mozzarella cheese to the sauce. When the cheese is melted, add the saffron liquid and 2 teaspoons of parsley. Season with 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Stir well. Let the sauce rest until it's time to assemble the dish.
In an 11-1/2-inch oval casserole dish previously greased with butter, spread all the cauliflower florets. Spread ladles of the saffron béchamel sauce to cover the cauliflower. Finish with a layer of mozzarella cheese.
Bake in the oven for 10 minutes at 400°F and broil for about 2-3 minutes to get a nice golden top. Remove from the oven and let it rest for at least 15 minutes. Serve warm. Garnish with the rest of the parsley.
Saffron is quite expensive, so I usually get it at a more reasonable price at the Indian market. It gives the sauce a yellow hue and a nice aroma.
If you want to prepare the dish in advance, place the cauliflower in the casserole dish but only add the sauce and cheese right before placing in the oven. Bake the gratin dish 30 minutes before you're ready to serve.
Soak the cauliflower in the "vinegary" liquid to prevent oxidation (turning brown) of the vegetable.
To make béchamel sauce, I always use all the ingredients at the same temperature, so make sure to heat the milk in the microwave for about 2 minutes (or in a saucepan), so it's warm. If you get lumpy pieces in the sauce, don't hesitate to use a hand blender.
If you have béchamel sauce left-over, don't discard it. Just store it for later and use it as a sauce for a croque-monsieur sandwich (ham and cheese sandwich).
I love using mozzarella cheese because of the texture when melted and the relatively neutral taste that doesn't overpower the saffron flavor. You can use any kind of cheese that is stringy when melted, such as Gruyère, Emmental or Monterey Jack cheese. I think they're perfect for gratin.