When considering what sauce to pair with your next pasta meal, cauliflower is probably not one of the ingredients at the top of the list.
Cauliflower, known as cavolfiore and/or sometimes actually called broccoli in some southern Italian provinces, is a staple vegetable throughout Italy, most notably in the south. Seemingly underappreciated here, it is one vegetable I often include in my cooking during the fall and winter months, and often within a pasta dish.
The recipe I was taught and most often prepare when pairing cauliflower and pasta is Cavolfiore alla Siciliana, which at its core includes the classic ingredients found in many Sicilian dishes: onions, garlic, raisins, anchovies, pine nuts, and saffron.
Having prepared this dish countless times over the years, it has evolved like my cooking, into how I like to serve it today. The recipe I am sharing is economical and easy to prepare. It allows the main ingredient to shine within the multilayers of flavor, makes full use of the entire cauliflower (which I will explain later), and is essentially a one-dish meal that could be solely vegetarian or not.
As with many of the dishes I prepare, there are no strict rules locking you into one approach or another, and with this dish the traditional ingredients are also flexible. For example, the onions can be either red or white, included in the initial sauté or not; the anchovies can be left out for those who want an all-vegetarian dish; if pine nuts are not handy, almonds or pistachio nuts are fine substitutes as I have used both with equally tasty results; the saffron, although a nice flavor punctuation, could just as easily be left out; and you are not limited to simply using the most common all white cauliflower because there are several varieties to choose from when available in the market. For example, in the past I have used pale green, yellow, and purple cauliflower with equally good results.
Some recipes call for the use of grated cheese to finish the dish, although my preference is to take the more rustic approach and sprinkle toasted bread crumbs, minced parsley, and red chili flakes over the dish once it is plated.
Other recipes suggest substituting currants in place of the raisins. They add a similar flavor component as the raisins, however I feel they are too small and less visually appealing on the plate.
Still other recipes call for the addition of a tablespoon or two of tomato paste, which is not my preference because I believe the sauce should be white. Which leads to the point I made earlier about using the entire vegetable. In my effort to add another layer of flavor and texture to the finished sauce, I have been making a pesto using the thick center stalk from the cauliflower once the florets have been trimmed, along with any of the base leaves if they are left on the vegetable and in good condition, as well as any trim from the florets. Just before plating the dish, I will add 2 or 3 generous tablespoons of this pesto along with some of the pasta cooking water, folding them into the pasta for a smooth silky finish to the sauce.
This step is, of course, optional, although I often like to do it because it makes for a richer sauce and there is minimal to no waste of the cauliflower.
With that, here are two recipes for you to try out with your next pasta meal, a pesto and a vegetable-based sauce.
This will be enough to yield 12 oz of pesto, well more than is needed for this dish. Any remaining pesto, topped with a film of olive oil freezes well for use with another dish, such as sautéed green beans or roasted cauliflower.
1 large central stalk, leaves from around the cauliflower base, and any trim from the florets, all taken from a 1½- to 2-pound cauliflower.
1 medium raw garlic clove or 1 tablespoon of roasted garlic puree
1 tablespoon pine nuts, lightly toasted
1 tablespoon finely minced parsley
Salt, pepper, and red chili flakes to taste
Set a large stockpot of salted water over medium-high heat and bring to a gentle boil. This will be the same pot of water the cauliflower florets will later be blanched in, and eventually the pasta cooked in as you initially build the flavor layers starting with the pot of water.
Trim the stalk of any dried or damaged areas, as well as any of the bottom leaves being used. Cut the stalk into several pieces, placing them along with the bottom leaves and trim from the florets into the stockpot and poach until very soft when tested with the point of a pairing knife.
Using a slotted spoon or a wire strainer, remove the poached cauliflower pieces and set aside to drain and cool.
Lightly toast the pine nuts, and mince both the raw garlic if using, along with the parsley.
Once all the ingredients are ready, place them into the work bowl of a food processor and pulse a few times to begin to mince and combine them. Scrape down the sides of the work bowl, add the seasoning, and run the processor on high speed while slowly pouring olive oil down the feed tube until a thick, smooth emulsion begins to form.
Scrape down the sides once more, check and correct the seasoning, and run the processor once more adding more oil as needed to reach a smooth pesto of cauliflower. Set the pesto aside to later be used as part of the sauce to finish the pasta.
Cauliflower Pasta and Sauce
Ingredients (serves 2 as a main, 4 as a starter)
¼ pound of pasta per person; my preference is to use a short pasta and chose fusilli for this recipe, although there are many other shape options to consider.
Whole cauliflower florets trimmed from a 1½- to 2-pound white cauliflower
1 medium red or sweet white onion
2 large garlic cloves
2 tablespoons yellow raisins
1 to 2 anchovy filets (optional)
3 tablespoons pine nuts
Generous pinch saffron threads (optional)
4 tablespoons bread crumbs
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley
Salt, pepper, red chili flakes
In the large stockpot of salted water already heated, return to a gentle boil and blanch the cauliflower florets until just tender when tested with the point of a pairing knife. Using a slotted spoon or strainer, remove the florets to a colander to drain and cool. Leave the stockpot on the heat to be used to cook the pasta.
Finely chop the onion; thinly slice the garlic; finely mince the anchovy filets; in a dry sauté pan lightly toast the pine nuts; in the same pan, lightly toast the bread crumbs; mince the parsley; and along with the saffron threads, set all the prepared ingredients aside.
Keep any small cauliflower florets whole, cut any medium florets in half through the stem, and any large florets into thirds or quarters, setting aside.
In a large 12- to 14-inch sauté pan over medium-high temperature, heat ¼ cup of olive oil until hot but not smoking.
Add the onion, salt, and pepper, then sauté, occasionally stirring until it begins to soften and lightly color.
Add the garlic and anchovy, stirring continuously to melt the anchovy into the sauté and infuse the oil with the garlic that should begin to lightly color.
Raise the heat slightly and add the prepared cauliflower, continuously stirring to coat it with the flavored oil. The objective is to get a light char on the cauliflower without burning it and for the florets to soften and become tender but not mushy.
Add the raisins, saffron, and pine nuts, mixing to combine.
While the cauliflower mixture is cooking, bring the stockpot to a boil and add the pasta. Cook the pasta to the package instructions, tasting for doneness one minute before the required time. When the texture of the pasta is to your liking, use a strainer to turn the cooked pasta out into the sauté pan over the cauliflower mixture.
Add 2 to 3 generous tablespoons of the prepared pesto and several tablespoons of the pasta water. Mix and fold all the ingredients together in the pan until the pasta and cauliflower are thoroughly combined and evenly coated with the sauce. If the sauce seems to thick, add some extra pasta water to thin it further.
Once ready, plate the pasta, then sprinkle with the toasted bread crumbs, minced parsley, and some chili flakes to finish.
That’s all it takes to transform a few simple ingredients and a head of cauliflower into an unctuous one-dish mid-week pasta meal perfect for a cold March evening.
If you are able to find one or more of the cauliflower in the other colors, mix some together with the white cauliflower to make a festive looking dish. Why don’t you see what you can come up with? Enjoy.
Be well. Eat well.
We observe, we copy, we interpret. Happily tethered to tradition, but always looking forward. . . .”Nothing can be new without some connection to the past . . .” L/F