A few weeks ago my mom tried an experiment, and I liked the results so much I decided to give it a try myself. As the title says, it’s chicken baked with cauliflower and cheese. Also bacon, just because. This is an incredibly delicious low-carb dish, and fairly easy to make. Because this was my first experiment, I’ll provide the recipe but then go step by step on the post-mortem. There were successes and failures with this that will influence the next time I make it.
Cheesy cauliflower chicken bake
- About 12 chicken breast tenderloins
- 1 lb. cauliflower florets
- 8 oz. shredded sharp cheddar
- Pre-cooked bacon crumbles
- 1 qt. (4 cups) water
- ¼ cup kosher salt
- 1-2 tbsp. minced garlic
- 2-3 tbsp. dried Italian seasoning
- 12-24 black peppercorns
Add brine ingredients to pot and heat partway to boiling (a full boil or simmer is not necessary). Once heated, transfer to gallon-sized freezer bag or a dish, allow to cool to room temperature, then refrigerate. Before baking, add chicken to brine for about 1 hour.
Remove chicken from brine and add chicken to 13″×9″ baking dish. Cover with cauliflower, then cheese, then sprinkle liberally with bacon crumbles. Place in preheated 425° oven for 20 to 40 minutes until chicken is done (165°). Be sure to check several pieces of chicken for doneness and inspect them visually.
Now of course the promised post-mortem. My key mistake in this dish, and the reason the cooking time is so drastically imprecise, was that I used frozen cauliflower. The chicken pieces cooked on the bottom quickly enough, but after 20 minutes the cauliflower seemed to have caused the tops not to cook; it took pushing the cheese aside to see it, which I would recommend when testing doneness. As a result the dish took a full 40 minutes to cook, and the chicken came out a little bit tougher than it needed to. The next time I do this, I’ll nuke the cauliflower first until it’s past room temperature and maybe even warmer.
The florets came out reasonably tender, but I like mine falling apart. There was a little bit of chewiness this way, again because the cauliflower was simply too cold going in. This will be texturally more pleasing and cook faster if you pre-nuke the cauliflower while the oven is preheating. Nuke longer if you’re working from a bag of frozen florets, as I did. This will also keep excess water out of the dish, which I had; it didn’t hurt anything, but it didn’t look great.
The brine was the most successful aspect of all. I used some dried minced garlic and Italian seasoning, and shook what I thought was a reasonable amount in (hence the imprecision for that as well). Even though the chicken was a little tougher from overcooking—not horribly so—it was moist and extremely flavorful. The herbs ended up sticking to the chicken, and the garlic rehydrated in the brine. I took the peppercorns out, except for one stray that made it in; they didn’t add a ton of flavor, to the point where I might consider using ground pepper instead next time except that I liked the flavor just fine as it was.
I heated the brine at the beginning to bring out the flavor of the herbs, and that was, I think, important. The chicken didn’t get added however until the brine had thoroughly cooled in the fridge, so the way I arranged this was to make the brine earlier in the day. (Doing it the day before wouldn’t hurt anything, I’m sure.) In a pinch, you could probably skip the warming step and just throw everything in together before throwing in the chicken, but the seasoning probably won’t come through as well. And something about the color you’ll see from steeping herbs just screams that the result is going to be yummy.
Brining time was an educated guess. Although I went with an hour, it was unintentionally; my original plan was for 45 minutes, but I overshot. I don’t know if this contributed to toughness or not, but I’m still blaming all that on the cooking time until I can prove otherwise. Bigger pieces of chicken—you could make this with whole breasts if you wanted—would of course take longer to brine.
In spite of my missteps with the cauliflower, I found this dish to be a strong success. The flavor was excellent, the texture was pretty good except for the aforementioned flaws, and it was actually pretty easy to put together. It was my first time brining chicken, and that went so well I’m sure I’ll brine a lot more of it in the future.