Some months just hold more family than other months. Over the past four weeks and two trips to Ottawa, I’ve converged with more family members than ever before. Great aunts and uncles, cousins from the west coast, expats from the UK and across the US, anglophones and francophones, tiny toddler second cousins once removed: everyone came back to Ottawa for the memorials of matriarchs on each side of my family.
With both the Di Gangi’s and the Herron’s, family gatherings mean food. My family is stacked with great cooks, but you come by and you get cooked for; cooking with is a rare occasion. So in this fall of rare happenings, my dad and I made a meal together.
The central dish: cauliflower & Fontina gratin from Russell Norman’s Polpo. My father’s mother would have approved. While the cookbook is Venetian, the dominant flavour in this recipe is Fontina cheese, and most of the world’s Fontina comes from her family’s Alpine province of Val d’Aosta. It’s something you want to get snobby about when making this recipe, because Fontina from Val d’Aosta is a much more flavourful cheese than varieties made elsewhere. You can smell Val d’Aostan Fontina as soon as you open the wrapping. When this casserole goes in the oven, your whole house is going to smell like beautiful, savoury, onion-steeped Fontina. You can thank me later.
What did we pair it with? Veal cutlets and a spinach salad topped with minced prosciutto, toasted walnuts and extra parsley garlic breadcrumbs, nbd.
Notes: Reheat leftovers in the toaster oven for a delicious take two. I bet they’d also blend up with sauteed onions and stock to make a pretty incredible alternate to French Onion soup.
Cauliflower & Fontina Gratin
slightly adapted from Polpo
- 1 medium cauliflower
- 200 ml milk
- 1 onion, sliced
- 10 whole black peppercorns
- 1 bay leaf
- 20g unsalted butter
- salt & pepper
- 75g Fontina, derinded and grated
- 50g Parmesan, grated
- 50g block mozzarella, grated
- parsley garlic breadcrumbs (optional)
1. Chop the cauliflower into equal-sized florets. Place them in a large pot of boiling water for 4 minutes, until just barely tender. Drain the cauliflower and douse it with cold water. Drain. Arrange the florets in a casserole dish, stems down.
2. Fill a small saucepan with the milk, onion, peppercorns and bay leaf. Let it simmer for a few minutes. Strain into a bowl and set aside.
3. Over medium-low heat, melt your butter in the saucepan. Bit by bit, add the flour, stirring as you go with a wooden spoon. The butter and flour will form a paste. Bit by bit, add half the milk, stirring as you go. Swap the spoon for a whisk, and slowly whisk in the rest of the milk. Add salt & pepper to taste. Reduce heat to low, and let the sauce simmer for 5 minutes, whisking occasionally.
4. Taste the seasoning in the sauce; add more salt & pepper if needed. Set 2 tbsp of Fontina cheese aside, and add the rest of the cheese into the sauce. Stir until melted and combined. Continue simmering undisturbed for 5 minutes.
5. Pour the sauce evenly over the cauliflower. Sprinkle with the remaining Fontina and (if using) breadcrumbs. Bake in the oven at 400 degrees for 10-15 minutes, or until the top is golden-brown and bubbling. (If 15 minutes comes and goes without any browning, crank the heat to 425 and leave it in for another 5 minutes).
6. Let cool for a few minutes before taking a bite – it comes out hot!
Parsley Garlic Breadcrumbs
- 200g old bread (or Panko)
- olive oil, to taste
- garlic clove, minced
- 1 tsp chili flakes
- salt & pepper
- 2 tsp parsley, minced
Bread option: Tear the bread into bits and spread it across a baking tray. Drizzle it with olive oil and toss to coat. Bake at 350 degrees until crisp. Let cool. Add the bread plus all remaining ingredients to a food processor – pulse until the bread bits have become crumbs. Scrape into a bowl and toss with a little more olive oil.
Panko option: Place all ingredients in a small bowl. Toss together. Add a little more olive oil if desired.