Alison Roman would like you to know right up front what not to expect in Nothing Fancy, her new book about cooking for friends. “If you’re looking for tips on how to fold linen napkins or create floral arrangements, I am not your girl…”
What does she teach you? For starters that snacks are not “stressful art projects,” they should be fun and breezy; that a baked potato bar is underrated, especially when you can serve them to friends alongside trout or salmon roe toppings; that a giant pot of pasta is “as crowd-pleasing as it gets;” that you should always have “tangy, briny things” in your pantry (“when you set out a bowl of olives, people will think you are an excellent, extremely put-together host”). In other words, that having people over shouldn’t be a fussy affair. (“Menus stress me out,” says Roman.) We should cook for our friends, make the kind of food we want to eat, not overthink things, and if it’s messy, it’s messy. Does it matter?
The dishes in Roman’s book seem like dishes you’d eat in the kitchen with your close friends who you invited over just that afternoon, the kind that make the house smell warm and welcoming. Exhibit A: this creamy cauliflower. How good does that look?
Creamy Cauliflower and Onion Gratin
Serves 6 to 10
I am one of those people who’d never entertain the idea of replacing carbs with vegetables à la noodles or cauliflower rice, but once this dish was born, I realized I was essentially using cauliflower as a replacement for pasta in this pasta-less version of what reminds me of macaroni and cheese. Believe me, I, too was horrified, but it was so good that I did not and could not care.
This gratin is the easiest and most delicious way to make superlatively tender, creamy, chewy cauliflower without any additional steps (no béchamel, roux, or other fancy sauce required). Bake the cauliflower, covered in the cream, just to cook it through and get it tender then uncover it so the cream can reduce, becoming thick and rich, and the cheese can get all browned and crispy.
1 cup heavy cream
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, finely grated
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 1/2- to 3-pound cauliflower, leafy green parts removed
1/2 small sweet or yellow onion, very thinly sliced
6 ounces Gruyère or white cheddar cheese, grated (about 2 1/2 cups)
Crushed red pepper flakes (optional)
2 cups fresh coarse bread crumbs or panko (optional, if you’d like to make gluten-free)
3 tablespoons white sesame seeds
1/4 cup olive oil (if using bread crumbs)
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Bring the cream, butter, and garlic to a simmer in a small pot over medium heat. Season with salt and pepper and remove from heat.
Slice the cauliflower into 1/2-inch-thick slabs (some of the bits will fall away and crumble into tiny florets; this is fine).
Place the smallest bits of cauliflower on the bottom of a 9-inch pie plate or cake pan (I like the roundness of the pie plates and cake pans, but a 2-quart baking dish f any shape will work). Scatter with some of the onion, followed by some of the cheese. Repeat with the remaining cauliflower, onion, and cheese until all of it is used, ending with the cheese.
Pour the cream mixture over (leave the garlic in or remove), followed by a good sprinkle of crushed red pepper flakes, if using.
Cover with aluminum foil and bake until the cauliflower is tender and cooked through, 2o to 25 minutes.
Remove the foil and continue to bake until the top is bubble and golden and the cream is mostly reduced, another 15 to 20 minutes (it will look slightly runny and creamy in the oven but will set and thicken once you take it out of the oven and let it cool a few minutes).
If using the bread crumbs: Now is the time to put them to use. Combine the bread crumbs, sesame seeds, and olive oil in a medium bowl (alternatively, just use the sesame seeds). Season with salt and pepper.
Scatter the bread crumb mixture (alternatively, just scatter the sesame seeds) over the top and bake until those are deep and thoroughly crispy and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes.
Remove from the oven and let cool slightly before serving.
Thank you, Alison!
P.S. Alison’s beauty uniform and a winter survival idea: soup group.
(Reprinted from Nothing Fancy. Copyright © 2019 by Alison Roman. Photographs copyright © 2019 by Michael Graydon and Nikole Herriott. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Penguin Random House.)