Italian cauliflower and rice gratin.
Italian cauliflower and rice gratin. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Today's lovely recipe for cauliflower and rice gratin (crostata di riso e cavolfiore) is from northern Italy and is based on one I found in a favourite cookbook, Italian Vegetarian Cooking by Paola Gavin. It combines a basic risotto with cauliflower and mornay sauce to make a luscious winter lunch or supper dish.

There are a few steps in the preparation, but the result is worthwhile. I find I can simultaneously cook the different parts of the dish and have it in the oven quickly. Strict vegetarians can substitute the gruyere and parmesan in the recipe with a rennet-free cheese.

I suggest serving the cauliflower and rice gratin with a seasonal salad of fennel, orange and spinach with pine nuts. It complements the gratin perfectly.

Cauliflower and rice gratin, Italian style.
Cauliflower and rice gratin, Italian style. Photo: Jeffrey Chan

Diana Lampe is a Canberra writer, dlampe@bigpond.net.au

Italian cauliflower and rice gratin

Serves 4-5

1 small cauliflower (about 750g)

1 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 cup Arborio rice

1 tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley

2 cups boiling water and vegetable stock powder or vegetable stock

2 tsp (10g) butter

50g (1/2 cup) grated parmesan cheese (divided)

Mornay sauce

500ml milk

1 bay leaf

freshly grated nutmeg

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

40g (2 tbsp) butter

40g (2 1/2 tbsp) plain flour

60g (1/2 cup) grated gruyere or emmental cheese

Cut the cauliflower into florets and soak in cold water to refresh. Cook the florets in plenty of boiling salted water for about eight minutes until tender.

To cook the risotto, heat the olive oil in a heavy-based saucepan on medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry, stirring occasionally, until the onion is soft. Add the rice and parsley and stir until the rice grains are coated with oil and translucent.

Tip in the boiling water and stock powder or hot stock. When boiling stir, cover, lower the heat and gently simmer for 10 minutes only. By this time the rice should be just cooked still with a bite to it and quite moist. Turn off the heat and beat in the butter and half the parmesan cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Cover and set aside.

To make the mornay sauce, heat the milk in the microwave with the bay leaf, a grinding of nutmeg, salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a heavy-bottomed saucepan on medium heat. Stir in the flour and cook the roux for a couple of minutes. Take off the heat and whisk in the warm milk, then return pot to the heat and stir for a couple of minutes until the sauce thickens and is smooth. Take off the heat, remove the bay leaf and stir in the gruyere cheese. Taste and adjust the seasoning.

To assemble the dish, grease a 22 to 23cm round or similar-sized ovenproof dish (five to six cup capacity). Preheat the oven to 160C fan or 180C regular.

The dish is assembled in a fairly casual way in two layers. Tip half the risotto into the bottom of the dish. Then arrange half the cauliflower florets on top. You may need to break or cut the larger florets into smaller pieces. Spoon half the mornay sauce over the cauliflower. Repeat the layers and finally sprinkle with the remaining parmesan.

Bake the gratin in the oven for about 30 minutes until golden and bubbling. It will take longer if it was cold. Test the centre with the blade of a knife to see if it is hot. Serve the gratin with a fennel, orange and spinach salad with pine nuts.

Fennel, orange and spinach salad

Serves 4-5

2 navel or blood oranges or one of each

2 small, plump fennel bulbs including fronds

2-3 generous handfuls baby spinach leaves, radicchio or other greens

a few sprigs flat-leaf parsley or mint leaves

2 tbsp lightly toasted pine nuts

Dressing

1 tbsp balsamic vinegar

3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil

1 eshalot or clove of garlic, finely chopped

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Cut off the fennel stalks and keep the fronds aside to add to the salad. Remove the outer layer of the bulb and cut the bulb in half down through the middle. Remove the core at the base. Place the fennel, cut- side down on the chopping board and cut lengthways into very thin slices. Transfer the slices to a dish of cold water to make crisp and to stop it discolouring.

Cut the oranges on a plate to collect the juices to use in the dressing. Using a serrated knife cut the skin off the top and bottom first and then down the sides. Be sure to remove all the white pith. Cut the oranges in half lengthways and then slice into half-moons.

Make the dressing mix the ingredients together with the saved orange juice. Taste and adjust to your liking.

Wash and trim the spinach, radicchio (or other greens), fennel fronds and herbs and pat dry in a towel or spin. Place the leaves and herbs in a shallow salad bowl. Arrange the orange and fennel slices on top of the leaves. At serving pour over the dressing and mix the salad gently with your hands. Sprinkle with the pine nuts.