25 November 2012

Offerings from Cinque Terre: Part I - Cauliflower and Leek Gratin

Combine the hominess of a really well-run B&B with incredibly generous and gracious hosts, who among other things served wonderful home-made meals, and you get this extraordinary agriturismo on Italy's Cinque Terre coast - Sostio A Levante. The property is tucked deep into the hills overlooking the Mediterranean and the car-free villages of Cinque Terre dotted along the coast below. 

The B&B's agriturismo label, popular throughout Italy, insures guests will have a slower-paced holiday off the beaten tracks with beautiful views of the surrounding landscape, insight into the local food culture, and at least one if not two exceptional home-made meals a day using local, seasonal, and many home-grown/locally-produced ingredients. Think lemon and kiwi trees scattered about the property, olives ripening in the backyard waiting to be cold-pressed into extra virgin olive oil, and grapes growing on the hill below the house for wine.

We stayed at this B&B for our fall holiday, and in between hikes through hills lined with vineyards that led down to the Cinque Terre villages and day trips to Lucca and Pisa, we were spoiled at mealtime by our hosts, Luca and Laura.

One of the evenings we joined them for dinner, a version of this cauliflower and leek gratin was served for our first course. It came out in individual gratin dishes, bubbling at the edges with browned, crispy bits on top. When it was served I thought it was pasta in a cream sauce. It was nowhere close. In fact, after the first spoonful I was still in question because it did not taste how I expected it to taste. It looked heavy and cheesy but it was refreshingly light and creamy. I detected the texture of pureed cauliflower and the subtle flavor of leek, but it was thinner than a cauliflower mash and thicker than a pureed leek-cauliflower soup. It was leaning towards a gratin with it's browned top, but it wasn't the type of gratin we often think of with sliced, layered vegetables baked in cream and cheese.

I could not place it in any one category, and I liked that it marched to the beat of its' own drum. A few more spoonfuls, and I was hooked by this delicate, uncategorizable dish.

I'm calling it a gratin here because frankly it needed a name and I don't think you would have been very impressed with me if I left this post blank. But even with a name, allow it to speak for itself if you try it. 

I took the base concept from that night of cauliflower and leeks blended into something between a mash and pureed soup and came up with this version. I knew I wanted it to have a bigger mouthful and a slightly more dynamic mélange of flavors, so pureeing the vegetables with soaked cashews added some unctuousness while the orange, lemon, and nutmeg added brightness and depth.

Suggestions: Make the puree a few days ahead, then all that is left to do at mealtime is placing it in ovenproof dish(es), sprinkling with cheese and olive oil, and browning under the broilerThis would also be great as a starter or side for a holiday meal. Serve it in individual ramekins or gratins, and your guests will feel festive and special eating it but will still feel good after eating it!

Cauliflower and Leek Gratin
Serves 4-6 as a side/starter

Notes: The desired consistency of this dish is more of a thinned out mash rather than a pureed soup. So when you puree the vegetables keep in mind you want just enough liquid to aid the blender but not too much so that the mash becomes soupy. Reserve any stock you remove from the pot before pureeing in case you need to add some later. Otherwise, leftover stock can be strained and kept in the refrigerator for another recipe.

1 head of cauliflower, divided into small florets and tender part of stem thinly sliced
2-3 cups good quality vegetable stock
2 leeks
1 pear, chopped
1 large garlic clove, halved
3/4 cup raw cashews, soaked in water for at least 4 hours
1/2 - 1 tsp. each salt and pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
Juice and zest of half a small orange, or to taste
Squeeze of lemon, or to taste
Small handful of flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, plus more for grating over top
Extra virgin olive oil for drizzling over top

Over medium-high heat, bring 2 cups vegetable stock to a simmer in a small soup pot or a large, deep sauce pan. Add cauliflower and make sure stock comes about halfway up the cauliflower but no more (add 1/2 cup more stock at a time if needed); you want the vegetables to partially boil and partially steam in the pot. Place the lid on and adjust the heat to simmer for 5 minutes, or until cauliflower is just beginning to soften.

While the cauliflower cooks, prep the leeks. Discard the green root end and keep the white and light green stalk. Remove outer layer of stalk, halve stalk lengthwise, and slice. (Size does not matter as it will all get pureed at the end.) Swish the slices around in a big bowl filled with water to allow any dirt between the layers to sink to the bottom.

Stir in leeks, pear, and garlic, cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes until vegetables are very soft. The vegetables will release water as they cook, so you should not have to add more stock, but check once while they cook to make sure the pot is not dry.

Remove from heat, drain extra liquid (see note above), add drained cashews and puree with a hand blender. Stir in salt and pepper, nutmeg and the next 4 ingredients (through parmesan). Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. If you want the puree to have a richer mouthful, you can stir in a little butter or cream. Spoon puree into any kind of shallow dish(s) that will go under the broiler (individual gratins or ramekins, pie dish, etc). Sprinkle over a generous amount of parmesan and a drizzle of olive oil. Place under the broiler for 3-5 minutes until cheese has browned. Serve with parsley sprinkled on top, if desired.

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