Finally, I almost have my kitchen back. I feel like during Christmas, we give our kitchens over to a higher power: one who insists that we fill our fridges with enough prosecco to see us through a nuclear winter, that everything is spiked with brandy, and followed with a chaser of cheese. We didn’t even host Christmas this year: we were away for Christmas-proper and bookended it with visiting various friends and relatives. There is, really, no excuse, for such a high proportion of festive leftovers. And yet, for the last week, I’ve found soggy mince pies everywhere, and brandy butter I don’t remember buying.
But now, I am starting to regain control. The last, tired clementines have been tuned into marmalade with bright green, fragrant bay, redolent of the fruit’s leaves, and put carefully away in the cupboard, waiting to bring colour to drabber months. One solitary piece of Christmas cake stands on the worktop, having been made by my father-in-law, and carried as precious cargo from Cheshire after the festivities were over. The parmesan sables have been eaten, and even the gingerbread house has finally been demolished, with only one or two rogue chocolate buttons proving it ever existed.
Only a big old lump of stilton remains, and a couple of considered and rejected Quality Street. A bit like coming up from deep under water too fast, I’m nervous that if I plunge myself into eating anything without any goose fat, brandy or cheese, I’ll get the festive bends. This dish prevents that problem, and allows you to feel like you’ve moved away from the weeks of cold cuts and chutneys without having to give credence to the nonsense talk of detoxes and diets. And I’m a sucker for a recipe that gives a bit of love to some tired and sad leftovers. It’s warming and rich and deeply savoury, and packed to the rafters with dark green veg. Paired with a sharp, spiky lemony mustard dressing and green leaves, it’s the perfect January dish.
Given its supporting cast, it’s surprising perhaps that the broccoli is the star of the show. I’ve only relatively recently fallen in love with broccoli, steadfastly believing for years and years that it could only be steamed or boiled and, invariably, slightly soggy. But broccoli, roasted at a high temperature, is a joy. So simple to prepare: no par-boiling needed, just popped into a roasting tray with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of salt, and left to do its own thing for twenty or so minutes.
Slightly charred broccoli is one of my favourite things: crunchy and complicated, and completely compulsive. With the right accompaniment it is vibrant: I like it with a creamy, parmesan-loaded dressing, maybe whisked with an egg yolk, like a cheat’s caesar dressing, or just liberally drizzled with lemon juice.
Here, I use up my leftover stilton. A mornay sauce made quickly and simply with the stilton, then poured onto raw broccoli and baked until golden and bubbling, is a total treat, charred florets poking through the sauce. Breadcrumbs are optional, but lovely, adding an extra crunch, and muddled with garlic and lemon zest, parmesan and parsley, they lift the dish. When I have stale white bread in the house (more often that I would like), I’ve taken to making a big batch of these crumbs, whizzing them in the food processor, and freezing them, then I sprinkle them on straight from the freezer: they’re great as pangrattato on pasta, as a crumb for homemade chicken strips, or chucked onto big fat portobello mushrooms as they bake.
Note: You can make the sauce in advance, just cover it with clingfilm directly touching the surface and refrigerate until ready to use.
It goes like this:
Stilton and Broccoli Bake
Makes: 2 generous portions, or a side for 4
Takes: 45 minutes
Bakes: 30 minutes
1 pint whole milk
50g plain flour
85g stilton, plus extra for sprinkling
Salt, to taste
1 medium head of broccoli
2 thick slices stale white bread
2 tablespoons grated parmesan
1 teaspoon chopped parsley
1/2 lemon, zested
1/2 clove garlic
1. Preheat the oven to 180°C. First make the cheese sauce. Melt the butter gently in a medium sized pan over a medium heat. Add the flour and stir vigorously until a paste has formed, and then continue to cook until the mixture sizzles. Add the milk in three stages, using a whisk to stir out any lumps. When the mixture is smooth and thick, add in the crumbled stilton. When the stilton has melted, taste the sauce, and season accordingly: you will probably need to add a generous sprinkle of salt, and some pepper.
2. If you want to use breadcrumbs, and don’t have any to hand, whizz up the bread in a food processor, then add the garlic, lemon zest, parmesan, and parsley, and pulse until combined. You may find it easier to make a larger batch and freeze the excess.
3. Cut the broccoli into small florets, and arrange in a medium sized, oven-safe dish. Spoon the sauce over the top, leaving some of the florets poking through, so that they crisp. Sprinkle with the breadcrumbs if using, and a little extra stilton if you like, and pop in the oven.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, or until the sauce is bubbling and the top is golden.
5. Ta Dah!
Icing on the cake
We ate this with piles of supermarket gnocchi, pan-fried in just a little oil, until they were golden and crispy on the outside, alongside piles of bitter salad leaves and the simplest dressing: 2 tsp olive oil, 1 tsp balsamic vinegar, 1 tsp lemon juice, 1/4 tsp dijon mustard, whisked together and poured over everything.