Cauliflower Parmesan is rich, cheesy and satisfying

Breaded cauliflower stands in for chicken in this cheesy Parmesan dish. (Tribune News Service)

If there’s any task I hate more than hauling out a week’s worth of garbage to the curb on the eve of trash day, it’s having to clean out the fridge beforehand to get rid of all the uneaten leftovers.

This week, I stumbled upon a forgotten head of cauliflower that I’d planned on roasting. It had a few brown spots but not so many that it wasn’t usable. With the help of a sturdy kitchen knife, I got rid of them quickly.

Rummaging through the cheese drawer, I found a still-fresh log of mozzarella just begging to be turned into something delicious. The instant answer was to pair it with the cauliflower for a vegetarian take on the popular Italian-American dish chicken Parmesan.

I started with a homemade marinara sauce that requires only a handful of pantry ingredients and 20 minutes or so of cooking time on the stove. That’s roughly the same time it took to slice a head of cauliflower into “steaks,” bread it in egg and breadcrumbs, and then fry until crisp in oil.

From there, it was easy to layer the sauce, cauliflower and cheese in a baking dish and bake until bubbly. The result, about 35 minutes later, was a rich, cheesy and utterly satisfying dish no one felt guilty eating.

CAULIFLOWER PARMESAN

Servings: 6

For the sauce:

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced

1 (28-ounce) can whole plum tomatoes

Large pinch of red pepper flakes

Pinch or two of salt

2 sprigs basil

For the cauliflower:

1 medium head cauliflower

1 cup all-purpose flour

Kosher salt, divided

3 large eggs, beaten

2 cups panko breadcrumbs

Olive oil for frying

8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into thin slices

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Fresh basil, for garnish

Make the sauce: Heat the oil in a large saucepan. Add the garlic, and cook until golden, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Add tomatoes with their juices, plus 1/2 cup water. Season with salt and red pepper flakes, then stir to combine. Add basil sprigs and simmer sauce until thickened, about 15-20 minutes.

While sauce is simmering, make the cauliflower. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line a plate or tray with paper towels.

Pull off the leaves from the base of the cauliflower, and cut off the stem, leaving core intact. Slice the cauliflower into 1-inch-thick slices. Don’t worry if some of it breaks into smaller florets.

Mix the flour with a couple of pinches of salt in a shallow bowl or pie plate. Place beaten eggs in another shallow bowl and panko in a third shallow bowl.

Add about 1/4 inch olive oil to a large skillet, and heat over medium-high heat until shimmering.

Add cauliflower to the bowl with flour, and turn to coat. (You may have to use your fingers.)

Shake off the excess, then dip in the egg to coat. Let the excess egg drip off, then coat the slices in the panko. Fry the cauliflower until golden brown on both sides, 6-8 minutes total. (You may need to do batches, and I also breaded and fried the broken florets.) Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain, and sprinkle with salt.

Spread 1 cup red sauce on the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish. Arrange the fried cauliflower on top, then spoon 1 cup of the sauce on top of the cauliflower.

Place mozzarella slices on top of the sauce, then spoon more marinara over the top. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese, and bake until bubbling and lightly browned in spots, about 35 minutes. Sprinkle with the basil, and serve.

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