Ah, throwing a chef a curveball is one of the secret pleasures for a food writer. How will someone who’s accustomed to impressing diners with carefully selected ingredients and inspired, meticulously prepared dishes respond when they’re asked to incorporate a mass-produced ingredient laden with artificial ingredients, salt and sugar? We couldn’t wait to find out.
Each month, we’ll choose an ingredient — guilty pleasures are our focus right now — and see what Richmond chefs can come up with. The only caveat: The dish has to be easy to make at home, and even more importantly, it has to taste good.
Our first victim, um, volunteer is Lee Gregory, three-time James Beard Award semifinalist and co-owner of the Roosevelt and Southbound. When asked what he initially thought about Cheetos as an ingredient, Gregory says, “I was just trying to figure out how it makes sense.”
He tried a few things, but they didn’t exactly work out: “The trick was trying to find a way to use them so that they didn’t clump or burn.” Potato chips, he says, can be ground to a fine powder and made into noodles. He’s also coated fish with crushed potato chips and found that they’re similar to bread crumbs. Cheetos were more of a challenge.
After scorching a few pans, cheesy dishes seemed like an easier way to go. Gregory contemplated broccoli and cheddar and decided to do a riff on the standard with cauliflower. He ended up crushing the Cheetos and using them as a topping. “It gave it cheese and a little crunch. I thought it was neat.”
by Lee Gregory
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more as needed
1/2 pound crispy rendered bacon
1 large head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1 cup heavy cream
2 ounces cream cheese, cut into small pieces
1 1/2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp cheddar, reserving 1/2 cup for topping the casserole
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 snack-sized bag crushed Cheetos (or as much as you can handle!)
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Season the water with salt. Generously grease either an 8-inch-by-8-inch casserole dish or small cast-iron pan with the bacon fat left-over from rendering.
Cook the cauliflower in the boiling water until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Plunge the cooked cauliflower into an ice bath or rinse it under cold water. Drip or pat it dry. Transfer the cauliflower to the dish or pan and set aside.
Bring the cream to a simmer in a small saucepan and whisk in the cream cheese and mustard until smooth. Stir in one cup cup of the cheese, salt, pepper and garlic, and whisk just until the cheese melts. Whisk in the Worcestershire sauce. Remove the cheese sauce from the heat, pour it over the cauliflower and stir to combine. Top it all with the remaining 1/2 cup of cheese and crushed Cheetos. Bake the casserole until it’s browned and bubbly hot, about 15 minutes. Serves 4-6.
Next time, spice it up with Cheetos Cheddar Jalapeño!