Do you ever have those recipes where are you just positively, absolutely certain that they will be terrible and that you shouldn’t make them… and yet, you are inexplicably drawn to them and know they’re not going to stop nudging you until you cave? Right, so this was one of those.
You see, several years ago, I was watching some undoubtedly average “healthy cooking” show where the chef suggested that one take half the pasta they wish to eat, replace it with chunks of cauliflower, boil them together and then cover it with marinara sauce. Even though I never made it or even considered making it, it turned my stomach so much that to this day, I can’t seem to forget it. Yes, let’s cook cauliflower in the least appetizing way possible because it is “health food.” Right. Where do I sign up?!
This was among the reasons that I approached the this dish from my other new favorite cookbook, Chez Panisse Vegetables, with great trepidation. It involved several things that give me pause, the first being that combination of cauliflower and pasta which reminded me of that fateful, stomach-turning show. Yet the cauliflower was just one of the things that so far exceeded my expectations of this dish, we are actually venturing into “mind was blown” territory–crunchy, nutty and this might be the only way I cook it for now on. (Just kidding! Er, maybe.)
I was also concerned about the whole wheat pasta, which I just don’t care for. As you can probably tell from my sniping at the “healthy cooking” show, I refuse to eat something that doesn’t sound good, great even, just because it is good for me and whole wheat pasta has also always been one of these things. Seeing as it has no fewer calories than the white-flour stuff and only a smidgen more nutrients, nobody could sell me on it, no siree. But here was whole wheat pasta as it should be, in a dish where the white flour stuff would be too supple or even boring as texture reigns supreme.
The cauliflower played off the walnuts, the whole wheat pasta absolutely worked, the lemon juice and vinegar brightened the whole thing up and the ricotta salata (well, we used feta, actually) made it soar. I can’t tell you how much we liked this, no wait, I can: I brought the leftovers to work the next day and had the best lunch I’d had in months, and I am making it again tomorrow night. This never happens.
Since we’re talking about cauliflower today, here’s a little cauliflower-chopping tutorial that you probably don’t need, but I sure did a couple years ago when every time I cut one up I’d end up with breadcrumb-sized cauliflower bits everywhere, not to mention really muddying up a dish like this. One day I saw Bobby Flay cut one up on one of his shows (thankfully, not the one I mentioned above) and light bulbs went off all over the place: work with the cauliflower’s natural shape and it will work with you. He removes the core in one large piece, let the freed flowerets fall to the counter and cut only where there is a nautural break or bound stem and there is tremendously less mess and waste. How about that? Oh, you’ve been doing it this way the whole time? Well fine then. Show off then, why don’t you? I suggest you start with this.
Whole Wheat Pasta with Cauliflower, Walnuts and Ricotta Salata
Chez Panisse Vegetables
[Note: This recipe got some fresh photos in 2020.]
One of the loveliest things about this recipe–and there are many, in my mind–is the way the recipe is laid out. It is as if Alice Waters in the kitchen with you, telling you that you can just chop all that while the water boils and really explaining the central tenet of this recipe: cauliflower that is cooked to a crunch, not steamed and for heaven’s sake, not boiled. She also thinks you should have this with a crisp white wine–for real!
The book says this serves 6, but we find it serves a lot more.
2 heads cauliflower
1 medium onion
4 cloves garlic
1 pound whole-wheat pasta
Extra-virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 pinch red pepper flakes
White wine vinegar
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
4 ounces ricotta salata or feta cheese
Put a large pot of water on to boil. Cut the cauliflower into small flowerets. Peel the onion and slice it very thin. Peel and finely chop the garlic. Put the pasta on to cook.
Saute the cauliflower in olive oil in a large saute pan. When the cauliflower begins to soften, season with salt and pepper and add the sliced onion and red pepper flakes. Saute over medium to high heat until the vegetables are brown and tender. The cauliflower should still be slightly crunchy and should not taste steamed. Add the garlic and remove from the heat, tossing and stirring so the garlic doesn’t burn; if it starts to brown, add a splash of water. Add a few drops each of vinegar and lemon juice and the toasted walnuts. Taste and correct the seasoning. When the pasta is done, drain and add to the cauliflower, adding enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat the pasta thoroughly, toss together and serve, with the cheese crumbled over the dish.