I often feel that vegetables get short shrift in casseroles. Either they're drenched in cream, or thrown in as an afterthought to the pasta, the rice, and the cheese. Not so in this dish from Fiona in Texas, the final winner in our Best Healthy Casseroles recipe contest. In this dish, cauliflower is the star. And it is delicious.
Why I chose Fiona's casserole
I am always trying to think of ways to use vegetables instead of starch or dairy in casseroles. Not necessarily for reasons of health — I like a good cheesy pasta casserole too! — but instead for reasons of interest and taste. There are so many interesting flavors, colors, and textures in vegetables. I loved yesterday's pasta casserole, for instance, and the way that Julia used butternut squash as a creamy sauce in her lasagna.
Anyone can throw together some cream, starch, and three kinds of cheese and call it delicious. (It invariably is.) But what about the delicious flavors and textures of things like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, and other overlooked vegetables? There's no need to drown them in cheese and bechamel; they can be delicious all on their own, or with just a bit of gentle coaxing.
That's what Fiona does here. Instead of making a dish with pasta or rice, she uses tender yet firm bites of cauliflower, and tosses them with tomato sauce and just a bit of sausage for flavor and body. The result is a tangy, rich dish that would satisfy anyone. I would happily serve this as a main dish (as I did last weekend) or as a side.
I made a few changes to Fiona's recipe, though. She calls for Italian sausage; I used chicken sausage because it's what I had on hand, and also because it is lower in fat. I also cook the sausage with the vegetables, to help really spread its flavor around. This is an important technique for making flavorful dishes without much meat: Cook everything with the sausage crumbles or the bacon, so that just a bit of meat can flavor the whole dish.
Why is this recipe so great?
Because Italian sausage is yummy, and the spiciness of the sausage is balanced well by the nuttiness of the cauliflower, which will soak up some of the saucy deliciousness. And because even though it is a casserole, it doesn't take too long to come together.
What makes this casserole health(ier)?
A little sausage (not so healthy) goes a long way towards flavoring the whole dish, which is mostly fresh, healthy wholesome veggies. The dish can be served as is for a wholesome meal, with a nice balance of veggies and meat that Michael Pollan would approve of.
Cauliflower & Sausage Casserole
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
1 medium head cauliflower, about 2 pounds
1 teaspoon fine table salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 pound uncooked herbed chicken sausage OR spicy Italian sausage, removed from casings
1 medium onion, about 1/2 pound, diced
4 cloves of garlic, minced
2 stems fresh thyme, leaves only
One 28-ounce can whole peeled tomatoes, drained and liquid reserved
2/3 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Heat the oven to 350°F and lightly grease a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil.
Cut the cauliflower head in quarters. Slice away the leaves and stem, and with an angled cut cut away the core from each quarter of the cauliflower head. Chop cauliflower roughly into bite-sized florets, each about 1-inch across.
Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Stir in the salt. Add the cauliflower florets and boil for 2 minutes. Drain into a colander set in the sink. Run cold water over the florets to stop the cooking process and shake the colander to drain any excess water. Return the cauliflower to the cooking pot and set aside.
Place a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and then, when the pan is quite hot, add the sausage. Use a spoon to break up the meat. Cook for 8 to 12 minutes, or until the sausage is cooked through and beginning to get crispy. If using chicken sausage there should not be a great deal of fat in the pan, but if using Italian sausage, drain all but 1 to 2 tablespoons of fat.
Turn the heat to medium-low and add the onion, garlic, and thyme to the pan with the sausage. Sauté for 5 to 6 minutes, stirring frequently. Scrape up any brown bits as you sauté. Crush the tomatoes, and add them to the sausage. Stir thoroughly, then add the reserved tomato sauce and cook for about 5 more minutes. Turn off the heat and taste the sauce. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Toss the sauce with the cauliflower in the cooking pot. Spread the cauliflower and sausage mix in the prepared baking dish and distribute evenly. Mix the bread crumbs and Parmesan and sprinkle them evenly over the cauliflower. Drizzle lightly with olive oil.
Place in the middle of the oven and bake for 25 minutes or until breadcrumbs have browned and the sauce is bubbling. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
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• A copy of Faith's new book: Not Your Mother's Casseroles (Harvard Common Press, January 2011)
• A new casserole baker from Emile Henry's Urban line
(Images: Faith Durand)