White food is supposedly unappetizing. Tom Colicchio, on “Top Chef,” will mark down a plate of food if everything on it is white or beige. I see his point: there’s something almost clinical about a plate of white food. That’s why parsley’s such a useful ingredient to have around; it’s an easy color-solution, the flecks of green create a vibrancy and sparkle a plain plate of white food just doesn’t have.
That said, there’s always one plate of white food that makes me smile. It makes me smile because it’s white food with a secret; a plate of white food that explodes with flavor. And that, faithful readers, is my Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta.
I call it my Heaven & Hell Cauliflower pasta, but it’s really a riff on a recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook: “Pasta with Spicy Broccoli and Cauliflower.” That recipe has nice color contrast between the broccoli and the cauliflower and if you’re concerned about color, you can make that dish and be very happy.
But usually, I don’t want to buy broccoli AND cauliflower. And somehow, over the past few years, this recipe just evolved for me. Maybe because it’s easy to grab a box of ziti and a head of cauliflower (the grand total? $5), go home and using ingredients I already have on hand (anchovies, garlic, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds) create a pretty intensely flavorful dinner.
That’s the secret, by the way, of the cauliflower pasta. Those flavors–again: anchovies, garlic, red pepper flakes, and fennel seeds–are so powerful together, you’ll take one bite and feel totally corrupted. That’s where the “Hell” part of the title comes from; those flavors are so bad-ass, they’re definitely going to hell. And the heaven, of course, because it looks almost all-white.
One technique I’ve developed, after years of making this, amplifies those flavors even more. Judy Rogers, in the Zuni book, has you caramelize the cauliflower and broccoli, then add the garlic, anchovy, etc and cook that along with the veg until you add the pasta. Now, I conserve half the garlic mixture and only add it at the very, very end, so yes, the finished plate has raw garlic and raw anchovy but so, for that matter, does a Caesar salad and you don’t hear anyone complaining about that, do you?
[Note: in the above picture you can see the empty spice bowl, with the fennel seeds, garlic, etc. That bowl is a bowl of SIN.]
I make this pasta at least once a month; it makes us feel a tiny bit wholesome from the cauliflower (another reason for the “Heaven” in the title) but naughty from all the olive oil and bad-breath inducing ingredients (the “Hell”). Are you ready to whip up a wicked plate of white food? Here’s the recipe.
Heaven & Hell Cauliflower Pasta
adapted from Judy Rodgers’ “Zuni Cafe Cookbook”
1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
Extra virgin olive oil
8 cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tin of anchovies, chopped (I know, I know, it’s a lot: trust me)
1 – 2 Tbs fennel seeds
Red pepper flakes to taste (depending on how spicy you like it)
1 pound pasta (ziti works best)
Grated Parmesan or Pecorino cheese
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil.
2. In a large saute pan, coat the bottom with olive oil and turn up the heat to medium-high. Leave it for a minute or two until adding a piece of cauliflower makes it sizzle.
3. In a bowl, combine the garlic, the anchovies, the fennel seeds and red pepper. This is your bowl of flava.
4. When the oil is hot enough, add half your cauliflower: or just enough so it’s all in one layer. Leave it for a bit (a few minutes) then toss around until the cauliflower is a deep, golden brown all over. Season with salt and pepper.
5. Remove the caramelized cauliflower to a plate and add the other half of the raw cauliflower and repeat this step. You may need to add more oil too, depending on how much the first batch absorbed.
6. Cook the rest of the cauliflower until golden brown (don’t forget to season it too; taste, so you know if it tastes good), add the rest of the cauliflower back in and then add HALF your spice mixture.
7. At the same time that you add half your spice mixture, your water should be at a boil. If it’s not, wait to add the spices or the garlic might burn. If your water’s at a boil, add a LOT of salt (the water should taste salty, like the sea) and then add a box of penne or ziti to the boiling water. Stir around so it doesn’t stick together.
8. As the pasta cooks, stir the cauliflower around along with half the spice mixture: about 30 seconds or so. Then ladle in a big ladleful of the pasta cooking water to the cauliflower pan. This’ll be your “sauce.” If the water sputters and spurts when you add it, lower the heat. How much water really depends on how long it takes the pasta to cook and how much water the cauliflower absorbs. Suffice it to say, you don’t want it to be soupy; just thickish liquid at the bottom of the pan.
9. When the pasta’s done cooking (start tasting it after 5 minutes; it should be pretty al dente when you add it to the cauliflower mixture) lift the cooked pasta into the cauliflower using a slotted spoon or, much better, a spider. (You can buy them in Chinatown for $5.)
10. Stir the pasta together with the cauliflower with the heat still on until you’re happy with the amount of liquid in there (the pasta tubes will carry some water with them too). I usually do it until there’s no liquid left at the bottom of the pan.
11. Take the pan off the heat and add, in no particular order: a splash of cold olive oil (it’s an Italian trick via Mario Batali’s show), the rest of the spice mixture and then your grated cheese. Stir all around and taste.
Pretty fantastic, eh? Not pretty enough for company or even, really, a food blog. But so what: we’re all friends here, aren’t we? Heaven may be a place on Earth, but this pasta’s a fast pass on the Highway to Hell.