NO. 8: CAULIFLOWER
There's no getting around it. A cauliflower is a cauliflower. It is not an asparagus spear. It is not a zucchini flower, nor is it a porcini mushroom. It is not a superstar. It is not sexy. As far as vegetables go, cauliflower is Mr Plain, cooked by plain people who happen to be hungry.
You could fiddle about with cauliflower and cook in it curries with chickpeas and cashews; or you could impress your dinner party guests by cutting a cauliflower into fancy look-at-me florets, cooking them with tortiglioni and pine nuts and red pepper flakes, and calling it by some regional Italian name that you've dragged out of some cookbook or just made up; but cauliflower, basic as it is, rockets into the Top Ten Vegetables of All Time thanks to one transcendent recipe of perfection: cauliflower cheese.
The ultimate vegetable comfort food, a dish that was a smash hit the first time cauliflower and cheese collided, possibly by accident, cauliflower cheese is outstanding straight out of the oven, yet is bizarrely satisfying eaten cold straight out of the fridge at four in the morning after a night on the tiles. All that chilled cheesy goodness! Cauliflower cheese is boredom-proof, thanks to the immense variety of cheeses God bestowed on us, via His ingenious invention of the cow, the goat, the sheep, the buffalo, the camel, the reindeer and certain other domesticated grazing animals. I have only tried the first three or four, so I cannot vouch for camel cheese, but I am sure it is delicious. It has to be. It's cheese. There is no bad cheese.
Trim a head of a cauliflower, making a conical hole in the main stem, and pierce or slit the thicker branches to assist these in softening before the florets go mushy. Boil it with plenty of salt and pepper until almost softened. No more. It will cook further in the oven.
Melt two tablespoons of butter in a pot, add four tablespoons of plain flour, stir off the flame to make a roux, add three cups of hot milk, stir until smooth. Now add the cheese, a cupful. Cheddar! Emmenthal! Blue! Whatever! Mix them up. It doesn't matter. For an ironic twist that will leave your foodie friends speechless, blend Roquefort with Bega Bar-B-Cubes. For ease – and that's what this comfort dish is all about – buy one of those packs of ready-grated cheese that combines three varieties.
Place the cauliflower in a snug buttered baking dish, tip over the cheese sauce, add the same volume of grated cheese again on the top and around the sides, and bake until cheese is bubbling, golden and irresistible.
Sprinkle with paprika and serve as a side dish alongside freshly-carved, very rare spit-roasted beef with hot mustard, and a cold beer.