Like most of us, I grew up believing that pretty much all cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, and especially brussels sprouts, the patron saint of Stock Yucks—were disgusting. The only—and I mean only—exception I ever made was for Panera’s broccoli cheddar soup, which was basically a bowl of melted cheese studded with teensy weensy green flecks (you know, the broccoli).
These days, of course, I am a very sophisticated lady. I no longer subsist primarily on Frappucinnos and Fruit by the Foot. I understand that a hollowed-out loaf of bread filled with cheese soup is not a healthy meal. And I don’t only consume vegetables for the good of my organs—I actually enjoy eating them. I promise! I swear! Don’t revoke my “grown-up” license, please!
I credit this change to the late aughts, when I—along with the rest of the food-obsessed internet—discovered that broccoli, brussels sprouts etc. didn’t have to be gross. We’d just been cooking them all wrong for decades, steaming and boiling where we should have been tossing with olive oil, showering with salt and red pepper flakes, then roasting until every piece gets browned and crispy and irresistible.
You know what, though? Sometimes, it’s just as good to say “to hell with it…” then go ahead and cover the green stuff in a thick blanket of cheese. If it’s good enough for John D. Panera, it should be good enough for the rest of us.
1 cup milk [As always when making a bechamel, you’ll need something with at least a bit of fat; otherwise, it’ll take forever to thicken up]
1 tablespoon flour
3/4 cup grated cheddar cheese [You could substitute it with another hard cheese that’s good and melty, like gruyere or gouda]
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
Melt butter. [Wait, what butter? Nonnie forgot to list an amount in the ingredients. I used a tablespoon, since to make a roux, you’ll generally combine equal amounts of fat and flour.] Blend in flour [with a whisk; not, like, a blender].
Remove from heat and stir in milk, salt, and pepper. Cook and stir until slightly thick. Add cheese and lemon juice. [Will this curdle the milk? No, it won’t. Glad we had this discussion.] Cook and stir until cheese is melted and sauce is smooth and thick. Serve over asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower. [Actually, don’t serve it over asparagus; that sounds weird.]
The verdict: Yes, this simple sauce does good things for a piece of simply steamed broccoli (or a good pound and a half of it). It’s easy to make—nothing more than a simple bechamel with added cheese—and pretty customizable; I imagine it’d be great with a little bit of dried mustard powder, or some nutmeg, or any number of other spices. You could probably add more cheese and use it on nachos. Just saying.
At the same time, I couldn’t help wondering if there might be a way to make this dish feel a little more modern—maybe by crossing Nonnie’s old-school cheese sauce with the roasty broccoli that’s become de rigueur. And then I remembered a recipe I meant to make all winter, but somehow never did: Smitten Kitchen’s cauliflower cheese, which is sort of like mac and cheese with cauliflower playing the role of noodle.
So I cranked the oven up to 400 degrees, sprinkled a little more cheese on top (because of course), baked the whole thing for a good 30 minutes…
…and came out with this.
I’m pretty happy with the result — cheesy, crispy, indulgent but a little less so than that broccoli cheese soup. Oh, and I guarantee that if you fed it to a kid at regular intervals, she wouldn’t grow up thinking that broccoli was gross.