Comforting Cauli-Mac

No sooner have I turned my attentions to a season of summer salad blog posts when the skies cloud over, rain sets in for a staycation and thoughts U-turn back to hunkering down with a large plate of comfort food. And if you can bring together the comforts of macaroni, cauliflower and cheese you really are onto a winner – carb and cruciferous heaven.

Grown to be in season for most of the year, so perpetually available, my heart nevertheless skips a beat when I see a display of caulis. Their distinctiveness knows no bounds, from the flavour to the brain-like shape. If you have any faith in the ancient Chinese ‘Doctrine of Signatures’ claiming that many foods mimic the part of the body they benefit, then it follows that cauliflower is good for lung health, since it resembles alveoli in the lungs. That’s alveoli not aioli – the branching parts of the lungs, not the garlic dip.

By all accounts then it should also be good for the brain since it resembles a large one – and it is – since it contains phytonutrients (plant-based anti-inflammatories and detoxifying compounds) particularly choline which supports brain function and memory. The head of the cauliflower, also known as the curds, is an excellent source of Vitamin C, Vitamins B (folates), Vitamin K and fibre whilst containing very few calories. It has a bile-binding function too, helping to rid the body of cholesterol.

Cauliflower can be steamed or roasted as florets or steaks rubbed in oil and spices, but I beg of you – please don’t boil it! Unless you mean for it to be a purée. Cut into tiny florets, or whirred up into cauliflower “rice” in the food processor, it makes a crunchy addition to salad. It also lends itself well to stir-fries and spiced dishes. But for maximum comfort from the brassica florets, steaming it and slavering it with cheese sauce to make Cauli Mac is by far the best way to go.

Start by cooking 100g macaroni in plenty of boiling slightly salted water for 10 minutes until the pasta is soft but still has some bite. There should not be any white starch visible at the cut end of the macaroni. Drain the macaroni and set to one side.
Cut or break the cauliflower into largish florets and rinse under the tap in a colander. Any green leaves can be incorporated into the dish or kept for a soup. Steam over, or simmer in, a small amount of water for about 4 minutes until the florets are firm but tender.
Drain the cauliflower (retaining the vitamin-rich cooking water to use in a stock).
Sauté a chopped leek and about 6 chopped mushrooms in 2 x 15ml (table)spoons olive or rapeseed oil.
To make a cheesy sauce by the all-in-one method put 20g butter or vegetable fat, 20g plain flour and 250ml milk in a saucepan. Season with a little salt and black pepper and a smidgen or two of mustard powder.
Stir or whisk continuously whilst heating gently, until the sauce thickens and coats the wooden spoon or spatular (about 3-4 minutes).
Stir in in the grated cheese and simmer gently for a few more minutes. A grated Mature Cheddar or Tasty Lancashire cheese is perfect for the sauce, about 100g of it, retaining a smattering for the topping.
To assemble, place the sautéed leek and mushroom in a lightly greased ovenproof dish along with the cooked and drained macaroni. The drained cauliflower goes in next.
Smother with the cheese sauce. Divided here into 2 dishes, each providing 2 servings of comfort eating for one day and the next. Even good as cold comfort.
Add a topping of grated cheese and breadcrumbs and/or sunflower and pumpkin seeds and bake at 180 degrees C for about 25 mins until the dish is piping hot, the topping is golden and sizzling and you can wait no longer.
Serve with a generous portion of a bright and crunchy raw salad. This one has cos lettuce, shredded white cabbage, celery, cherry tomatoes, cashew nuts and a few blueberries. For a total carb fest you could be forgiven for serving with chips, baked or roast potatoes. The new normal – pub grub at home.

PS There is one thing you can do with cauliflower that I wouldn’t recommend – that is to boil it, mash it and use it as a filling in a wrap. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. A dear departed friend, Adrienne Wood (née Dawes), goes down in history for many reasons but this infamous mush of hers says it all and will forever make us smile. RIP Adrienne, Queen of the Cauliflower Wrap.