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Fennel & Cauliflower Gratin

August 12, 2011

I’ve heard that some pregnant women have specific cravings throughout their pregnancies. In the beginning I had a thing for bananas, but since then it’s been pretty straightforward. No midnight runs for Rocky Road ice cream. No insatiable desire for peaches or pickles or pizza. My pregnancy craving, if we can even call it that, is for one thing and one thing only: food. Preferably of the rich, creamy, cheesy kind.

The only problem is that tadpole has grown to the point where my stomach is now compressed into a much sadder, smaller version of its previous self. The hunger is still there, yes; but the fullness – oh the fullness! You know that worn expression, your eyes are bigger than your stomach? I wouldn’t be surprised if my eyes were actually bigger than my stomach. I quickly become woefully, painfully full. And then 20 minutes later? I’m ready for more.

So I’m eating more often but less in one go – not my normal modus operandi. I’m trying to choose things that fill me up less while satisfying my aforementioned creed: the more cheese the better. This is why when I saw a healthy cauliflower and an understated fennel bulb sitting in my refrigerator (both purchased in moments of clearheadedness), I had to chop them up, mix them up with grated cheddar cheese and a hearty bechamel and bake the whole thing until it fit into my pregnant lady parameters.

And judging from my husband’s reaction? Those parameters do not exclude all of you not confined to diets centered on cheese, butter and bread. (A little cheese is the meaning purpose reason for spice of life, I say.) We served this alongside something, which, at the moment, escapes me (fish? chicken? lamb?) because this gratin stole the show. Cauliflower and bechamel are natural partners, and the fennel was a delightful addition. Not too heavy, definitely not too light. And despite the creaminess, this gratin did not cause my heart to start thumping wildly nor did it make me need to go lie down. I survived! And I even had seconds.

FENNEL & CAULIFLOWER GRATIN

The perfect hearty side dish that actually contains lots of vegetables. I never measure the ingredients in a bechamel, so don’t feel like you have to stick to my numbers. If you want to leave out the fennel, go for it. If you can’t be bothered to boil the cauliflower in advance, just bake the whole thing for 45 minutes or so to give the veggies time to cook through. Serves 4 as a side.

1 head cauliflower, chopped into small florets

1 fennel bulb, chopped into pieces

about 1/2 stick (4 tbl/ 55 grams) butter

about 1/2 cup flour

about 1 1/2 cups milk

1 big chunk cheddar (or similar) cheese, grated

a big of grated nutmeg

salt & pepper

1/2 cup grated pecorino or parmesan (optional)

Preheat the oven to 400F/200C. Boil the cauliflower for about 10 minutes, until soft, then drain. Meanwhile, make the bechamel: In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat, then add the flour bit by bit while whisking together. It should become pasty pretty quickly. If not, add more flour. After about 30 seconds, start to add the milk slowly, whisking the whole time. Add the nutmeg, half the of the grated cheese and some salt and pepper to taste, whisking as you go to prevent the sauce from sticking to the bottom of the pan. After a bit less than a minute, remove from the heat.

Put the drained cauliflower and chopped fennel in a large casserole dish. Pour 3/4 of the bechamel over and stir to coat evenly. Top with the remaining 1/4 sauce and some more grated cheese if you want (and I think you do).

Pop in the preheated oven for about 20 minutes, or until everything is bubbly and gooey. For some extra crunch, put the dish under the broiler for 3 minutes or so, until the top is deep golden brown. Allow it to rest for a few minutes before serving. Enjoy!

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