There are really just two ways to do cauliflower wrong. These are 1) throwing it straight into the garbage and 2) serving it raw as a crudite.
Its not that raw cauliflower is bad, exactly. Its just that its a shame, maybe even a sin, not to take advantage of the sweet flavors and satisfying textures that emerge when you cook cauliflower. As long as youre cooking it, though, cauliflower is near-infallible its ratio of hits to misses is in hit-making record producer Dr. Luke territory and if you have any sense, youll recognize its vegetal perfection and eat it joyously no matter how its cooked.
Nonetheless, some cauliflower preparations are more perfect than others. Roasting is the method with the highest ratio of reward to effort. Just toss your florets with a little olive oil, salt and pepper and roast them at 400 degrees until theyre crisp-tender and gently scorched. (Spices or herbs are optional thats how self-sufficient a culinary entity cauliflower is.)
One of the most stunning cauliflower dishes Ive ever eaten, though, is somewhat complicated: a classic French cauliflower gratin, which takes parboiled florets, smothers them in bechamel sauce and cheese, and browns the topping in the oven. The gratin is undeniably a main dish, ushering cauliflower to its rightful place at the center of the table. All you might need to add to it are a green salad, crusty bread and wine.
The only way to improve on the classic dish is to roast the cauliflower before combining it with the lavish sauce. This way, you get to enjoy the caramelized qualities of roasted cauliflower while also eating a lot of butter and cheese.
As with all gratins, you want your main ingredient to be fully cooked before you combine it with the topping; it will soften somewhat while its soaking in bechamel, but not much. The post-bechamel baking period is really just to force the ingredients to get cozy with one another, to make sure everythings the same temperature, and to melt the cheese.
HEAT oven to 375 degrees. Put 1 tablespoon butter in a rimmed baking sheet in the oven. When it melts, add cauliflower, season with salt and pepper, and toss to combine. Roast, stirring occasionally, until florets are mostly tender and lightly browned, 25 to 30 minutes. (Leave the oven on.)
PUT milk and cream in a small saucepan over low heat. As they warm up, put remaining 2 tablespoons butter in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. When it melts, add flour and cook, whisking constantly, until mixture turns golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Gradually whisk warm milk and cream into butter mixture and continue to cook, whisking frequently, until sauce has thickened slightly, about 5 minutes.
TRANSFER cauliflower florets to an 8- or 9-inch square baking dish. Pour the bechamel sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Sprinkle the cheese on top. Bake until the sauce is bubbling and the cheese is golden brown, about 25 minutes.Yield: 4 servings