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 & Chicken Sausage Casserole
Serves 4 to 6 as a main course
1 medium head
cauliflower (about 2 pounds)
olive oil, plus more for drizzling
uncooked herbed chicken sausage or spicy Italian sausage, casings removed
medium onion, diced
Leaves from 2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 (28-ounce) can
whole peeled tomatoes, drained and liquid reserved
grated Parmesan cheese
Freshly ground pepper
Arrange a rack in the middle of the oven and heat to 350°F. Lightly coat a 9x13-inch baking dish with olive oil; set aside.
Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil over high heat. Meanwhile, cut the cauliflower head into quarters. Cut away the leaves and stem. With an angled cut, cut away the core from each quarter of the cauliflower head. Cut the cauliflower into bite-sized florets about 1-inch wide.
Add the cauliflower florets and salt to the water and boil for 2 minutes. Drain into a colander set in the sink. Run cold water over the florets to stop the cooking process. Shake the colander to drain any excess water. Return the cauliflower to the pot and set aside.
Heat the oil a 10-inch sauté pan over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the sausage and use a wooden spoon to break up the meat into small pieces. Cook until the sausage is cooked through and beginning to get crispy, 8 to 12 minutes. 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 but return the sausage to the pan.
Lower the heat to medium-low and add the onion, garlic, and thyme. Sauté, stirring frequently and scraping up any browned bits at the bottom of the pan, for 5 to 6 minutes. Crush the tomatoes with your hands, add them to the pan, and stir to combine. Add the reserved tomato juices and cook for about 5 minutes more. Turn off the heat, taste, and season with salt and pepper as needed.
Transfer the sauce to the pot with the cauliflower and stir to combine. Transfer to the baking dish and spread into an even layer. Mix the bread crumbs and Parmesan together in a small bowl, then sprinkle them evenly over the cauliflower. Drizzle lightly with a little more olive oil.
Bake until breadcrumbs are browned and the sauce is bubbling, about 25 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
Storage: Leftovers can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 4 days.
(Images: Faith Durand)