So many vegetables and so little time. At least that’s how it feels toward the end of summer. The time for squirreling away in the form of canning, drying and freezing is fast approaching if not already here, but I wanted to share a recipe that is all about celebrating a handful of the most incredible textures and flavors of the season.
This recipe is a meeting of many loves. In one sense, it mimics a shepherd’s pie with a layer of meat on the bottom and a mash (here cauliflower) on top. The flavors lean unabashedly toward Italian and taste like the best parts of lasagna. And the cauliflower — due to roasting it as opposed to steaming or boiling — could easily be mistaken for a creamy, decadent polenta. So much so you could probably make a bit of cash if you were to take bets on what this layer is made of.
And from here it only gets better because there are endless variations. Instead of sausage, you could use ground beef, bison, elk or even turkey or chicken. You could leave the meat out altogether and instead make the first layer be your favorite combination of vegetables mixing and matching between summer squash, corn, mushrooms, fire-roasted chiles, dark leafy greens, etc. You could easily serve this on its own for lunch or dinner, but don’t make the mistake of leaving it out of the running for a morning meal. It makes a delightful (and hearty) breakfast or brunch with a poached or fried egg on top.
Cauliflower and Tomato Summer Skillet
Makes: 6-8 servings; total time: 2 hours
For the cauliflower polenta:
4 cups diced cauliflower (around 1 small-medium head)
Drizzle of olive oil
¼ cup heavy cream
½ cup finely grated Parmesan cheese (or 1 cup if grated with a microplane)
Salt and pepper, to taste
For the roasted tomato sauce:
1 pound cherry or plum tomatoes, halved if large
3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons butter
A few fresh thyme sprigs (or 1 teaspoon dried)
Salt and pepper, and red chile flakes to taste
For the sausage base:
Drizzle of olive oil
1 pound bulk Italian sausage
1 medium red onion, sliced
4 cups packed fresh spinach
2 cups freshly grated mozzarella cheese
Handful of basil leaves
Preparation: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. The first thing we are going to do is prepare and cook the cauliflower and tomatoes in the oven at the same time. Find two medium-sized, oven-safe baking dishes. In one of them, toss together the cauliflower, a drizzle of olive oil and salt and pepper. In the other dish, add the tomatoes, garlic, olive oil, butter, thyme and a crack of salt and pepper and red chile flakes, if using. Put both dishes in the oven for one hour.
While the vegetables are cooking, it is the perfect time to prepare the sausage. Heat a large, heavy-bottomed ovenproof skillet (or Dutch oven) over medium-high heat. Add a drizzle of olive oil and add the sausage, breaking it up with your hands into bite-sized pieces as you put it into the hot pan or afterward with a wooden spoon. Once the sausage looks almost cooked, add the onion. Once the onions are tender and the sausage is browned, add spinach and cook just until the leaves wilt into the mixture. Turn off heat and check seasoning, adjusting as needed. If there is extra fat in the pan, remove it with a spoon.
Once the tomatoes and cauliflower have cooked, remove both dishes from the oven and make the cauliflower polenta: Transfer the cooked cauliflower to a blender along with heavy cream and Parmesan cheese. Blend until almost smooth. Season if needed until it tastes great to you.
With a rubber spatula, spread this mixture evenly over the sausage mixture.
Now make the tomato sauce: If you used fresh thyme sprigs, remove and discard the stems, leaving any leaves in the dish. Transfer everything in the dish to a blender and blend until completely smooth. Pour this sauce evenly over the cauliflower layer. Top with mozzarella cheese and a crack of sea salt and black pepper. Bake for 30 minutes if all ingredients are hot. Or, let cool to room temperature, refrigerate and bake the next day for one hour at 350 degrees. To serve, let cool for five minutes and sprinkle torn basil leaves over the top.