Cauliflower: It’s having a moment. You can’t swing a cat in a grocery store without hitting a frozen cauliflower “pizza crust”,“tots” or “gnocchi” and the godmother of them all, cauliflower “rice.” Restaurants are serving whole cauliflower “roasts” and grilled cauliflower “steaks.” Now for people who need to eat low-carb, are diabetic, and those stricken with celiac and other grain intolerances, these cauliflower stand-ins are a godsend. The problem, from a culinary perspective, is that cauliflower is not crust, not a tot, nor is it rice. Cauliflower is, well, cauliflower, and while it can be manipulated into all sorts of shapes, sizes and textures, it is always just... cauliflower.
This is not a criticism. The pale cousin to broccoli has long been unfairly maligned, likened to sulfurous punishment by generations of children. So it is gratifying to see it take center stage. That being said, all of the recipes for this versatile and nutritious and genuinely delicious brassica are making poor cauliflower try to be something else. A wolf in sheep’s clothing is still a wolf.
Riced cauliflower is a magical ingredient. Raw in a grain salad, with 1:1 proportion, gives you a hearty crunch and mild flavor which allows you to consume twice the volume for the same carbs with no loss of enjoyment. Half-and-half with actual rice in dishes like fried rice or risotto, the same bulking up is true, and half-and-half in ground meat dishes, like Thai basil chicken or classic sloppy Joes, you can cut back on the calorie burden of your chosen meat.
This recipe was inspired by two classics. The first, cauliflower cheese, a British staple of cauliflower florets swimming in a puddle of cheese sauce, which can be found on pub and restaurant menus all over the Empire. And the second, that down-home comfort food of the American South, cheese grits. Using riced cauliflower and the technique of cheese grits, you get a dish that visually hearkens to the grits, but flavor-wise is all cauliflower cheese. It comes together in about 15 minutes in one pan with little fuss. You won’t think it’s grits, but you will think it is delicious.
Serves 4-6 as a side dish
- 1 16 oz. package of fresh riced cauliflower (frozen will be too watery, if your store doesn’t carry it pre-riced in the produce section, grate a head of fresh cauliflower and use a pound)
- 1 cup whole milk (or half and half, or whole cream, that is between you and your arteries)
- 3/4 cup water
- 1 1/4 cups shredded cheese (see note below)
- 2 Tbsp. butter
- 2 scallions, white and green sliced thin
- Salt and pepper to taste
Heat the riced cauliflower, milk and water in a medium saucepan over medium-high. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Bring to a simmer and cook approximately 5-6 minutes until cauliflower is fully cooked and soft (the liquid should be somewhat reduced). Remove pan from heat and add butter, stirring constantly until the butter is fully emulsified into the mixture and sauce has thickened slightly. You don’t want to just let the butter melt without stirring, it will make the mixture greasy. Add shredded cheese and keep stirring constantly until the cheese is fully melted and incorporated into the dish. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper. If you want some spice, add a dash or two of hot sauce. Serve hot, top with scallions.
For a bit of textural contrast, this is also good topped with toasted buttered bread or cracker crumbs, and if you want to make it ahead for a party, put it in a buttered casserole and sprinkle more cheese on top and bake for a great side dish.
Note on cheese: For us, the ideal cheese here is Hoffman’s Super Sharp Cheddar, a processed cheese you can usually find in the deli of your grocery store. Have them slice you a big thick slab and grate it at home—it has just enough punch while melting smoothly. Taking note from cheese grits, a processed-style cheese simply melts better without getting greasy, and brings plenty of flavor to the party, as well as that soul-satisfying gentle orange color. If you cannot find Hoffman’s, look for cheeses that melt well; American or Velveeta work great, as does smoked gouda (the cheap grocery store kind with the brown rind, not the fancy stuff), Havarti, Muenster or Fontina. If you do want to use real cheddar, just be prepared that your sauce might get a bit stringy or greasy. With all melting applications we recommend not using pre-shredded bagged cheese, as the additives they include to keep the cheese from clumping in the bag also make for a less cohesive melt, and they can be very dried out. It is worth it to grate your own fresh.