This is a green and decadent version of cauliflower cheese, consisting of just-tender broccoli florets in a creamy, mustardy, nutmeggy white sauce. With cubes of smoky gammon. And a crunchy breadcrumb-and-Parmesan topping. And lots of Cheddar. And fairies skipping around in glittery frocks all over the top of the dish.
All three of my children love broccoli, and are happy to eat a lot of it. This may be because the stuff is intrinsically delicious (really, it is) but I suspect it's because I've fed them broccoli since they were tots. I love the stuff, especially when it's a very vivid green and still squeaking as it comes out of the pot, to be dressed with a lick of olive oil and Kikkoman soy sauce.
But for most kids, broccoli is an acquired taste, and I hope this recipe will help them aquire it, because its luxurious cheesy-bacony sauce is so good.
I cook broccoli in plenty of rapidly boiling, salted water when I need a great quantity of it, but if I am making a small quantity, I use a microwave oven. (I don't care what food purists say about microwave ovens: they are excellent when it comes to cooking peas, broccoli, asparagus, Brussels sprouts and similar green veggies to al dente perfection, provided that you get the timing just right.)
When boiling broccoli, remember that the stalks ('tree trunks' my kids used to call them) take longer to cook than the outer dark-green bits. People often discard the tree trunks, but these are very good, so I suggest you slice them about 1 cm thick, and put them in the boiling water for two minutes before you add the top bits.
Don't omit the step of plunging the broccoli into a bowl of iced water: this will set the colour, and prevent it from turning a muddy khaki in the final dish. Drain them thoroughly too, or residual water will seep out as the dish bakes and thin the cheese sauce.
Leave the gammon out if you're a vegetarian.
Luxurious Broccoli 'n Cheese with Gammon
900 g (about three whole heads) fresh broccoli
400 g smoked gammon steaks
2 Tbsp (30 ml) sunflower oil
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
½ cup (125 ml) breadcrumbs
60 g Parmesan, finely grated
a little paprika or cayenne pepper, for dusting
For the cheese sauce:
90 g butter
6 Tbsp (90 ml) flour
1 litre cold milk
2 cups (500 ml) grated Cheddar
2 Tbsp (30 ml) Dijon mustard
2 Tbsp (30 ml) fresh lemon juice
½ cup (125 ml) cream
a quarter of a nutmeg, finely grated
a handful of fresh parsley, finely chopped
salt and milled black pepper
Fill a large bowl with cold water and add a handful of ice cubes. Cut the broccoli 'trunks' into 1-cm-thick slices. Throw these into a pot of rapidly boiling salted water, and two minutes later add the remaining broccoli, broken into florets.
Cook for exactly 7 minutes, then drain in a colander under plenty of cold running water. Plunge all the broccoli into the bowl of iced water and leave it there for 10 minutes.
Cut the gammon steaks into small cubes. Heat the oil in a pan and fry the cubes for 3-4 minutes, or until they are nicely browned. Drain off any fat, add the lemon juice and toss the cubes over the heat until all the juice has evaporated. Set aside.
To make the cheese sauce, melt the butter in a medium saucepan and tip in the flour. Cook over a medium-high heat, stirring constantly, for a minute, without allowing the flour to brown.
Pour in the milk, all in one go, and beat energetically with a wire whisk to disperse any lumps. Bring the mixture to the boil, stirring constantly. When it is bubbling, thick and smooth, turn down the heat and let it burble gently for 3 minutes.
Remove the sauce from the heat and stir in the grated Cheddar, mustard and just enough lemon juice to give it a pleasant zing. Don't add any salt or pepper yet. Cover the surface with a piece of clingfilm and set aside to cool for 10 minutes.
In the meantime, drain the broccoli, pat it dry on a clean tea towel and arrange the pieces in a large baking dish (or in individual dishes).
Stir the gammon cubes, cream, nutmeg and parsley into the sauce and season to taste with salt and pepper. You won't need much salt as the gammon and Cheddar are quite salty in their own right.
Pour the sauce all over the top of the broccoli and gently prod the pieces so each one is evenly coated.
Sprinkle the breadcrumbs and Parmesan over the top, and dust with a little paprika or cayenne pepper.
At this point, you can set the dish aside for up to 6 hours. When you're ready to cook it, bake at 180 ºC for about 25 minutes, or until the inside is very hot and the topping is golden and crunchy.