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Cauliflower is the white knight of winter eating in Ireland. Here’s how to make it delicious

Russ Parsons: At this time of year, the vegetables at the grocery seem to be a study in beige, but it’s a poor craftsman who blames his materials

At a friend’s Christmas party, I was once again peppered with questions from guests doubting my sanity in moving from California to Ireland. “But the weather?” they plead.

I’m asked this on what seems like a daily basis and my answer is always and honestly that I love the weather here. Granted, that’s a much easier argument to make when the sun is shining and the landscape is glorious with every possible shade of green. It’s harder on scutters days like today, the wind gusting, the rain lashing, the sky the colour of tarnished pewter.

But the reality is, I don’t mind it at all, really. What I do find more difficult at this time of year is the vegetables at the grocery, which seem to be a study in beige. Various roots, cabbages, and of course potatoes, and that’s about it. Some days it’s harder than others to get excited about cooking.

Still, it’s a poor craftsman who blames his materials. And though from time to time I may dream nostalgically of the rainbow of colours basking in the sunshine at my old Santa Monica farmers’ market, I do believe there’s something about having to dig a little deeper to find beauty that in the end pays off.


Lately I’ve been on a cauliflower kick. Though it’s the very essence of beige, at least on the surface, when treated with a little care it has a homespun charm that I find reassuring. It can even, dare I say it, be downright sexy. That’s especially true of the gorgeous heads I get that are grown by local Wexford county farmer Tom Cleary.

My latest craze is either a gratin of cauliflower (chou-fleur?) or plain old cauliflower cheese, depending on how sophisticated you want to sound. It’s essentially just cauliflower stirred into a cheesy white sauce and baked under a blanket of breadcrumbs.

As with so much of my cooking these days, I make it a little different each time, depending on my whim and what I have in the refrigerator. The latest version, which was one of my favourites, had ham and leeks along with some very good smoked Knockanore Irish cheddar on top.

However you want to make it, the basics are simple. After a bit of experimenting, here’s the formula I have settled on. It makes a gratin that is richly flavoured and voluptuous, but still firm enough to slice neatly.

Gratin of cauliflower

Break up a head of cauliflower into florets and dice the stems. Tip these into a large saucepan with whatever flavourings you want – a bay leaf and a half onion are always a good start, as is sliced ham and chopped leeks. Cover these with milk and simmer until just tender.

Drain them, reserving the cooking milk in a measuring cup. You’ll need three cups; add more milk if you need it. Discard the bay leaf and onion and tip the cooked cauliflower and the rest into a buttered baking dish.

Make a roux by melting 3oz/85g of butter in a saucepan. Whisk in six tablespoons of flour to make a paste and cook for a few minutes to get rid of the raw taste.

Ladle in the hot milk, whisking all the while, to make a thick sauce. Add a good dollop of Dijon mustard and some grated cheese and pour this over the cauliflower.

Scatter more grated cheese on top, then fresh breadcrumbs, and dot with butter. Bake at 190 degrees until it is bubbling and browned.

You could serve this as a side dish, but in our house it usually is a full dinner, served with a green salad. And it’s just as good the second, and even third day.

If you somehow have managed to maintain dinner party mode after the holidays, I sometimes make something a bit more dressed up. Best of all, despite its luxe appearance, it’s even easier to make.

It’s a custard that can be served either in a ramekin or unmoulded onto a plate. In flush times, this is amazing topped with a spoonful of caviar; these days I am happy with browned, buttered breadcrumbs.

Break up a head of cauliflower into florets. Steam 14oz/400g of them until they are very soft – you should be able to smash them between your fingertips.

Blend the cooked cauliflower in a food processor or blender until it is finely ground. Add 1 1/4 cups/300ml of cream and blend again until nearly smooth. Season to taste, then add four eggs and a scraping of nutmeg and blend again.

Pass this mixture through a strainer into six ramekins and bake in a water bath at 150 degrees until the centre of the custard just jiggles, about 35-40 minutes. Serve warm.

Now admittedly, neither of these dishes is the most colourful you’ll ever see. But if I’d wanted that, I’d have stayed in sunny southern California. Here in Ireland at this time of year, I’m more than happy to settle for delicious.