Saturday, November 6, 2010

A Vegan Thanksgiving, Part VI: Cauliflower and Fennel Gratin

This may be the most delicious thing I’ve ever made. I know I’m very enthusiastic about the food I make for this blog, but this gratin was seriously transcendent. Creamy on the inside, crunchy on the outside, gloriously caramelized onions and fennel, a Thanksgiving dream come true.

I’ve been batting around the idea of a vegan béchamel for a vegan lasagna for a while now, but I haven't actually tried making it yet. This recipe gave me an excuse to try it out. I used a traditional béchamel recipe (from the Joy of Cooking), but white sauces generally rely on the final addition of a cheese for body and well-rounded flavor. Obviously cheese is out, but cashew cream adds a comparable richness. This cream sauce turned out so well that I cannot wait to apply it to other vegan adaptations, like a spinach and mushroom lasagna, and even a vegan macaroni and cheese.

Although a gratin is not a traditional Thanksgiving dish, it incorporates delightful fall flavors like cauliflower, onions, and fennel. It also provides a luxurious element to the humble simplicity of vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. I can’t say enough good things about this dish. It’s wide open to adaptation. I’m planning to make it with cauliflower and broccoli for the big day. It would also be perfect for potatoes and other root vegetables, in a more traditional gratin. You could also incorporate pasta with the vegetables for a kind of casserole. In any case, it’s a cozy, satisfying dish for fall and winter, so make it soon!

3 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion sliced
1 bulb fennel quartered, cored, and sliced
1 head cauliflower cut into florets
1/3 loaf bread processed into crumbs
1/2 cup almonds processed into crumbs
1/2 cup cashews
1 clove garlic
1/3 cup hot water
2 tablespoons non-dairy butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/4 cups non-dairy milk
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 400º. Place onions and fennel in an oven proof pan. Drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes or until tender. Remove from oven and set aside.

Bring a pot of water to a boil. Cook the cauliflower florets until tender, about 5 minutes. Drain and set aside.

Place bread crumbs and almond pieces on a sheet pan in a single layer. Bake until dry and crispy, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Process the cashews and garlic clove in a food processor. Add the remaining two tablespoons olive oil and process until it forms a paste. Add the hot water while the processor is on, until the mixture is thick and creamy.

Add the milk to a small sauce pan, and bring to a simmer. Remove from heat. In another sauce pan, melt the butter. Whisk the flour into the butter to make a roux. Slowly add the milk to the flour mixture, whisking constantly. Cook until the sauce begins to thicken, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir the cashew purée into the béchamel. Add the cayenne pepper. Taste for salt and pepper.

Heat the oven to 350º. Stir the cauliflower, fennel, and onion into the béchamel. Spoon into a 9” x 9” baking dish. Top evenly with the bread crumb and almond mixture. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the center of the gratin is 160º on an instant-read thermometer.

Serve immediately!

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