I can’t believe it’s June already! I also can’t believe that we’ve only had about 3 days of real sun this season…isn’t it supposed to be summer? In the yard, the chickens have been toying with the idea of going on egg-strike until the sun comes back out, and the garden, while beautifully green, has been a little slow in fruiting. And me, I am sorely low in vitamin D and have paled to a remarkable shade of pasty white (particularly out-of-character for a Puerto Rican girl) due to all this overcast weather.
But there are some up-sides. Namely, we have a bumper crop of broccoli coming up in our back yard!
Broccoli (Brassica oleracea; the same family as mustard, cabbage, cauliflower, radishes, brussels sprouts, turnips, and collard) grows best in the fall and early spring. During the warm summer months, the immature flower heads (which are the part we are accustomed to eating) will bolt and flower long before they become large enough to be worth harvesting. Because of our delayed summer, we have been blessed with heavy, large main stalks with healthy side shoots. These shoots have buds that will mature after the center head is cut, assuring a longer broccoli season for us.
We are now head-long into week two of “dear lord we have WAY too much broccoli”, and this weekend I decided to take the bull by the horns (the broccoli by the florets?) and make use of it. Digging around in the cheese drawer of the refrigerator (because nothing goes as well with broccoli as cheese), I found a bit of chevre, some sharp cheddar, and a wedge of particularly tasty asiago. Out of this, a glorious gratin recipe was born.
On Saturday, Rick and I trekked up North to his band’s dance/music rehearsal in Santa Rosa. I am not one to attend a party empty-handed (nor am I one to pass up an opportunity to test out a recipe on the unsuspecting public), so I prepared this casserole at home, packed it up, and brought it with us (along with a loaf of olive bread) to share with our friends in the band. Not thinking about Memorial Day weekend traffic, we neglected to eat lunch before we got in the car. Oops. Nearly three hours into what ought to have been a one hour drive, we were still sitting in stop-and-go traffic, debating drive-through In N’ Out Burger, and being tortured by the delicious broccoli and cheese smell which had permeated the whole car.
Somehow we managed to hold out for “real food” and finally made it to the house. Because we were so ravenously hungry by the time we arrived, I think we ate about ¾ of the pan of gratin before anyone else knew it was there. It did, however, get a very positive reaction from my friend and culinary guru, Alanna, who said it was fabulous. That’s good enough praise for me!
This gratin is a fairly easily-executed recipe, calling upon some basic French sauce-making
techniques (a successful béchamel is, in my opinion, one of the required skills of any aspiring cook) and requiring very little in the way of time or ingredients. It begs for experimentation and substitutions (I think I’m going to try it with Swiss cheese, smoked bacon, and tarragon next time). I was also thinking it would be tasty with cauliflower, brussels sprouts, or asparagus in place of the broccoli, provided nothing is over-cooked.
Broccoli Chevre Gratin
8-10c fresh broccoli (3-5 heads, depending on their size)
2 Tbsp olive oil (or sunflower oil)
½ large yellow onion, peeled and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
½ tsp dry dill (1 sprig fresh, chopped)
1/3 c flour
2 Tbsp butter
2 c milk (I use Straus nonfat organic milk, but any is fine)
2 oz fresh chevre (goat cheese)
½ c cheddar cheese, cubed or shredded
½ c bread crumbs*
¼ c fresh shredded asiago cheese (parmesan, romano, or any other hard, salty cheese would be fine)
Sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste
Cut the florets (budding flower heads) off of the broccoli and break or cut them into bite-sized pieces. Peel and chop the stalk, removing the woody outer-layer and cutting the stem into ½” rounds. Steam these pieces in a steamer pan (or in a regular stock pan with an inch of water in the bottom) for roughly 5 minutes. The pieces should be bright green and a bit tender, but still crunchy in the middle. Rinse the broccoli with cold water (to stop the cooking process), strain, and set it aside.
Put 2 Tbsp olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat and sweat the diced onions and garlic until they are translucent. Be careful here; if you burn the garlic the whole dish will taste terrible! Add butter and dill and cook just until butter is melted. Whisk in the flour to make a roux (a paste made of butter and flour which is used as a thickener for many sauces, soups, and gravies). The flour will stick to the onions at this point – don’t worry about it too much – just keep it moving so it doesn’t burn. Let the flour cook until lightly browned to develop its nuttiness and remove any “raw flour” taste, and then rapidly whisk in the milk all at once, stirring until the sauce (called a béchamel) is thick, creamy, and there are no flour lumps. There will still be onion lumps, obviously.
Take the pan off of the burner and add the chevre and cheddar and whisk again until thick and smooth. Season to taste with sea salt and cracked pepper.
Pour the steamed broccoli into the pan with the cheese sauce and fold gently until the broccoli is fully coated. Transfer this mixture into a greased casserole dish and press it down with the back of a spoon so there are not any air pockets and the surface is fairly flat. Sprinkle the top with bread crumbs and asiago cheese, and place the casserole dish into a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes or until the sauce is bubbling up the sides and the cheese is beginning to brown.
This recipe can easily be baked in individual ramekins, if you’re feeling fancy. I don’t often do it this way (because it just means more dishes to wash later)…but it’s a great little starter for a dinner party!
*to make your own breadcrumbs, run any stale bread you have laying around through a food processor, or chop it quite fine. Spray or toss this with olive oil and your desired choice of herbs, and spread it out thin on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes a side (stir when it starts browning). Allow the breadcrumbs to fully cool before storing (they will become crunchy as they cool). For this recipe, I used some old whole wheat bread and seasoned the crumbs with dry dill, garlic powder, coarse sea salt, and fresh cracked pepper.