“Great Personality” Cauliflower Olive Penne

I made this delicious cauliflower pasta for the first time this winter and immediately loved it. I had seen this recipe and liked the idea but it was one of those weeknights when I had cauliflower and pasta but not much else from the original recipe and I was tired and hungry so I used what I had already. In one of those happy accidents of leftovers alchemy, I liked my version so much I never went back to try the original inspiration.

I knew I wanted to share the recipe here but there was a problem. Nutty roasted cauliflower, green picholine olives marinated in coriander and herb de Provence, smoky sweet piquillo peppers, creamy salty tangy sheep’s milk feta – it was delicious and satisfying. But if the explosion of Pinterest has illustrated anything, it is that people like to cook food that not only sounds good, but looks good too. We want the whole package. And when I take pictures of some things I cook, the visual just don’t do the flavor justice. Some dishes just aren’t as easy on the eyes as others.

It’s like the classic set – up conversation:

“I have this friend. He’s smart, funny – you’ll love him!”

“Awesome! What does he look like?”

“He looks smart and funny! He’s a lot of fun!”

“But what does he look like???”

“He has a GREAT personality.”

Don’t judge this recipe by its looks alone. Get to know it. Look for its hidden depths. Because, really,  it has a great personality.

Cauliflower Olive Penne

– 1 head cauliflower

– olive oil

– 6 brined green peppercorns, crushed*

– 1 teaspoon anchovy paste

– 1 clove garlic, crushed to a paste

– 1/4 cup coarsely chopped green French picholine olives

-1/4 cup chopped roasted piquillo peppers (or roasted red bell peppers)

-about 2 ounces feta, crumbled (I used a sheep’s milk feta)

– 1/3 cup panko crumbs

– 6 ounces dried penne pasta

Heat the oven to 400. Separate the cauliflower head into small florets, cutting the stems and bigger florets into bite sized pieces. Toss with just enough olive oil to lightly coat, spread the florets out onto a big baking sheet and roast until the bottoms and edges start to brown, about 20 minutes. stir the cauliflower once to make sure the bottom isn’t browning to quickly, but otherwise leave it alone.

Meanwhile, begin to bring a pot of salted water for the pasta to a boil.

Get the olives, peppers and feta ready to go; if the olives have pits, smash the olive on a cutting board with the bottom of a glass or the flat side of a knife blade. The pit will be loosened and the olive will be easy to chop.

In a large saute pan, pour about a tablespoon of olive oil over low heat; add the crushed green peppercorns, anchovy paste, and garlic paste and allow the garlic to just cook through. Stir once in a while to keep the garlic from sticking and burning.

Toss the panko crumbs with a little olive oil and toast the crumbs, either in a skillet on the stove or in the oven. Keep and eye on it; the oil makes it brown quickly.

Cook the pasta; since it usually takes about 10 minutes, give or take, start it a little after halfway through the cauliflower’s cooking time.

Remove the cauliflower from the oven and add it to the pan with the garlic. Gently stir to infuse the cauliflower with the garlic mixture, then mix in the peppers, feta, and olives. scoop the very lightly drained pasta into the saute pan with the cauliflower mixture. That splash of starchy water will keep the whole thing moist without watering the flavor down.

Toss the crumbs through the pasta just before serving. Finish with a little drizzle of fragrant olive oil.

*Brined green peppercorns come in a jar and look very similar to capers. They are pungent and have a lemony pepper taste that is great with a wine sauce on fish or chicken or in a creamy vegetable dip. Their flavor is midway between black and white peppercorns. In the brine, they keep indefinitely.

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Cauliflower mac and cheese

The more perceptive reader may have concluded rightly that I am a fan of cheese. In fact, while we were in the Netherlands and Belgium, it wasn’t the chocolate shops that I wandered blissfully through, eyes alight, heartbeat elevated! The scope and variety of cheese was a revelation- aged Gouda, epoisse, geitenkass both young and old- and I happily tasted my way through.

While a simple homemade macaroni and cheese is bliss, this is a recipe that makes it into a little more of a rounded one-dish meal. I recommend a snowy night, a fire in the fireplace, and a bottle of dry white wine to go with.

1 head cauliflower

2-3 slices of bacon cut into ¼ inch strips

2 tablespoons flour

¼ cup Marsala wine

½ teaspoon salt, plus salt to cooking water

1 ½ to 2 cups milk

4 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese and Parmesan or pecorino romano cheese

6 ounces of macaroni, penne, or whatever tube pasta you like.

Preheat the oven to 350°

Fill a big pot with salted water and get it boiling over high heat.

Break the cauliflower into florets. Add it all at once to the fiercely boiling water and then bring the water back up to temperature. Cook the cauliflower for about 1 minute, just until it is still a bit crisp. Drain it into a colander very thoroughly. Remember, water has no flavor, so you don’t want the cauliflower to water down the sauce. Leave it in the colander to finish draining while you busy yourself with the rest of the dish.

Alternatively, the cauliflower can be broken up and roasted in the oven for about 20 minutes. This takes longer, but has the benefit of concentrating, intensifying, and sweetening the cauliflower’s flavor.

In a heavy saucepan or large skillet, cook the bacon until it is crisp and browned. Then remove it from the pan and drain it on a paper towel.  Leave about 1-½ tablespoons of bacon fat in the skillet and sprinkle the flour into the pan, stirring to form a roux. Cook, steadily stirring, over medium heat until the flour becomes fragrant and golden brown. Pour in the Marsala wine and stir it into the roux. It should foam up and hiss and sizzle; reduce until almost all the liquid is evaporated and the flavor is concentrated.  Slowly whisk in the milk, stirring to remove any lumps. Bring to a simmer and cook until the sauce coats the back of a spoon.  By this, I mean that your spoon should have a coating of sauce that does not immediately fill in the track left when you run your finger across it.  Taste for salt. Remove from the heat and stir in the grated cheese.

Cook the pasta to slightly underdone in salted water. Drain it thoroughly. Add the cauliflower and bacon to the pasta and stir them together. Pour the cheese sauce over and mix gently, until all of the pasta and cauliflower is enveloped in the creamy, cheesy sauce.   Bake in a buttered ovenproof dish at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes until the sauce is bubbly throughout. I use a dish with low sides to up the crusty golden brown top to creamy luscious interior ratio. Grate a little bit of cheese over the top and return to the oven until the top is melted and golden.

Please don’t feel bound by my cheese recommendations- I recommended a couple of readily available favorites. Fontina, or Gruyère melt beautifully and are full of flavor. My only caution is that milder cheeses such as Monterey jack, Colby, or mild cheddar may not offer enough to give the sauce the flavor desired.