Simply food


Cauliflower cheese piping hot from the oven

Cauliflower cheese piping hot from the oven

Cauliflower cheese, by a writer who cooks, not a cook who writes. 

Diane has been after me to add more vegetarian dishes to our weekly menu and I’m happy to comply, given that she is recovering well from a heart attack. Everything high cholesterol is banned and that includes most meat. On top of that she’s joined PETA, who espouse a totally vegan lifestyle and you can see what direction we are headed.

For ethical reasons we’ve long cut lamb and veal out of our diet, and when I have a complete yearning for either, I sneak off to a restaurant with friends and don’t admit what I’ve enjoyed ingesting that particular night out. Beef is something I can do without for months on end, but every now and then I have to have a juicy undercooked steak. So on those occasions, I’ll enjoy the fare at a top steak house. For my birthday, Diane took me to Morton’s The Steak House in Toronto, but I must say the steak I had at Gibby’s Restaurant in Old Montreal on a bleak January eve, was far superior in every way.  You can find my reviews of both establishments under my Gentleman’s Portion pseudonym on Trip Advisor, where I have just earned level 6 top contributor status. An unbelievable 72,858 readers have read my 170 reviews of restaurants, hotels and attractions.

Now bacon is another matter entirely and you can read about that and other carnivore notions in my recent blog, Is Bacon Ethical?

At the bookstore the other day however, I was attracted to a lovely book called River Cottage Veg by the wonderfully hyphenated Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, whose UK television shows originate from his eponymous farm in Dorset, England. Hugh has written a definitive veggie cookbook with recipes for everyone from vegans to quasi-vegetarians (he admits to being a carnivore himself) and those on the cusp.

As I had bought a huge cauliflower at the St Lawrence Market on the weekend, I was determined to use it in a dish forthwith. Cauliflower is a difficult veggie to handle as it has very little taste of its own, but it does very well as a base for stronger flavours. Cauliflower au gratin seems to be making a comeback. Although Hugh’s book has some wonderful recipes and thought provoking ideas, he’s a miss on the cauliflower front with what he calls a cheat’s cauliflower cheese.

Cauliflower 5I’ve also been looking at Nigel Slater’s work, and like most food writers, he has a recipe for cauliflower cheese as well. His suggestion is to add snippets of bacon or cooked mushrooms. For Diane’s sake, I pass on the bacon. Another suggestion is to top the dish with sunflower or pumpkin seeds for a bit of crunch.

Nigel calls himself ‘a cook who writes’ and I counter that by calling myself ‘a writer who cooks!’ It’s not much of a competition, as he’s been a successful cook who writes with a weekly column in UK’s The Guardian newspaper for yonks, and many books and TV series. Plus I really like his storytelling style in his Kitchen Diaries series, the third of which is due out soon. Whichever way round one calls one’s trade, it is on the simple recipes that a reputation flourishes or flounders.

Eventually I turn to a battered copy of my own book, How to Eat Well and Stay Single, where I find a perfectly good recipe for this redoubtable dish.

I contend that my simple and traditional English style cauliflower cheese leaves all the other fancy ‘au gratin’ efforts in the dust. I leave it to you, dear reader, to decide who wins.


  • Servings: 4
  • Print

Author Nigel Napier-Andrews, How To Eat Well and Stay Single

Preparation time: about 10 minutes
Cooking time: 10 minutes steaming + 20 minutes baking

Ovenware dish with a serving for two, or a side accompaniment

Ovenware dish with a serving for two, or a side accompaniment


  • 1 whole cauliflower

For the sauce:

  • 50 g unsalted butter
  • 3 tbsp flour
  • 500 ml/2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tbsp Dijon mustard
  • ½ tsp ground nutmeg
  • 250 g medium or old cheddar cheese, grated
  • 4 tbsp (25 g) breadcrumbs
  • Ground black pepper


  1. Select a fresh cauliflower with tight white heads and no discolouration, cut off the thicker end of the stalk and the outer leaves and discard. Cut the remaining stalk with a deep cross almost all the way up to the flowerlets and the break the cauliflower into pieces along these cuts. If the stalks still seem too long cut them down and discard the excess.
  2. Set the oven to 225°C or 450°F.
  3. In a vegetable steamer, cook the cauliflower for 10 minutes or until just tender.
  4. Meanwhile, make a roux in a non-stick saucepan, heat the butter and when just boiling add the flour and stir with a wooden spoon until the mixture is the consistence of sand. Then pour about half the milk in and stir constantly until the sauce thickens. Now add the balance of the milk, switch to a whisk and beat gently until all the lumps are gone and the roux is smooth and creamy.
  5. While the roux simmers, add the Dijon mustard and ground mustard and whisk in, then add three quarters of the grated cheddar cheese. It will take a few minutes for the cheese to melt into the roux, but as you stir you will shortly get a beautiful thick, wonderfully coloured and redolent sauce. Simmer for a few more minutes to let all the ingredients come together, then set aside.
  6. Butter an ovenproof baking dish, drain the cauliflower thoroughly in a colander and arrange with the flowerlets uppermost.
  7. Pour over the cheese sauce until it completely covers the cauliflower.
  8. Mix the balance of the grated cheddar cheese and the breadcrumbs, grind in a good pinch of black pepper and sprinkle over the top of the dish.
  9. Bake in the oven for about 15 minutes, or until the top is golden brown and the sauce is bubbling. Serve immediately as a main or side dish.

TIP: If you are serving as a side dish, bake the recipe in two dishes and after it cools, cover and freeze the second dish for another day.

ALTERNATE: For a French take on this dish, sprinkle on plenty of chopped hard-boiled egg yolk and chopped parsley and call it chou-fleur à la polonaise.

SUGGESTION: The other Nigel suggests making the dish half and half with broccoli, which sounds like a splendid idea.

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