“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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Winter Citrus & Endive Salad

Walking here in the city is, to misquote Ralph Waldo Emerson as completely as possible, about the destination, not about the journey. It’s a great place to be a pedestrian, but it helps to be goal oriented about it. And I have to admit I’ve adapted, hook, line and sinker. I cover a lot of sidewalk day-to-day, iPod playing something in my ears that makes me fast and focused, mental route mapped out, watching where I step, navigating other pedestrians and their children, dogs, strollers, granny carts. I’ve caught myself playing sidewalk chicken and doing the classic eye roll/deep disgusted sigh/throw hands up in exasperation combo thing pretty often. I’ll even admit  (and I share this from a deeply conflicted mixture of burning-faced shame and adrenaline-fueled exhilaration) that recently, while walking to an appointment in the wintry rain, I tried to start across the street before the car coming the opposite direction had passed in order to time it as closely as I could.  When the driver stopped in the middle of the street, rolled down her window and started yelling at me for “being in the middle of the street like an idiot” it took me about half a second to start waving my arms and yelling back. In my defense, everyone I told about it thought I was totally justified, because everyone knows the drivers here are all crazy.  I  haven’t lost my common courtesy completely – sometimes I deliberately smile at people as I pass. It seems to freak a lot of them out, so win/win for me.

So I’m striding down Washington Street a couple of days ago when I came to a short, hard stop on the pavement,  arrested by the scent of hyacinths and freesia. Buckets full of those most fragrant of late winter blossoms were spilling out onto the sidewalk in front of a mini-grocery (I think people call them “bodegas”). Completely distracted from my no doubt urgent errand, I stopped and just took a deep breath and literally inhaled the beauty of the moment.

It reminded me to look up occasionally during these things that seem like something to “get through” – a commute, a north-eastern winter, a tiresome daily task – and actually notice what’s going on around me.

That the sunniest of fruits, citrus, is at its brightest and most abundant and varied in the winter is reason enough to take a little pleasure in the journey. Whether you are in California where the tree are incandescent with Meyer lemons, or you just live close enough to warmer climes to get the influx of Ruby reds, Cara Cara navels, clementines, and Sevilles that glow from the bins lining frigid northern sidewalks, they are like yellow signal lights flashing “slow down, pay attention.”

I’ve made this crunchy, bittersweet winter salad with them several times this year. Like that burst of lime squirted onto hot posole, the fragrance seems to instantly brighten the mood and the cool mixture of coral and jade is a feast for the eyes.

(I’ll just add that there are lots of lovely parks and river-front promenades where a contemplative stroll is not generally frowned upon, as long as you stay out of the jogger’s way.)

Citrus Endive Salad

serves 4

– 1 ruby red grapefruit

– 1 navel orange

– 1 Cara Cara orange (red navel orange)

– 1 largish head of Belgian endive

– 1/4 medium sweet red onion

– 2 ounces feta,  crumbled into rough chunks

Peel and section the grapefruit and oranges.  Remember, in this case, the perfect is the enemy of the good, so don’t stress about getting it right the first time.

With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.With a sharp knife, cut the skin off the top and bottom of the fruit.

Slice down the curved sides of the fruit, removing the skin, pith and outer membrane.

Once the skin is gone, you can go back and clean up any pith or membrane that got missed the first time.

Cut each section out from between the white membrane. get as close as you can, but don’t go crazy; you’ll use the leftover juice for the dressing.

Once all the fruit segments are cut out, squeeze the leftover pulp into a cup to get as much juice out as you can. Save 2 tablespoons for the dressing and drink the rest.

Core and separate the leaves on the head of endive. Thinly slice, almost shave the red onion into slivers. Arrange the citrus sections, endive and onion on a platter and tumble the crumbled feta over the top. Drizzle with the citrus vinaigrette and a little of the fig balsamic and serve.

These aren’t the  3/1 proportions of a classic vinaigrette, but a lighter sweeter version.

Citrus Vinaigrette

– 2 tablespoons reserved citrus juice

– 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

– 1/2 teaspoon spicy mustard (may I suggest Figgy Mustard?)

-1 teaspoon finely minced shallot

– fresh black pepper to taste

– salt to taste

-3 tablespoons olive oil

– drizzle of fig balsamic vinegar (optional)

In a screw top jar, combine the juice, vinegar, mustard, shallot, salt and pepper. Shake to combine. Add the oil, and give everything a good hard shake until it’s emulsified into a creamy golden color.

Get stuffed

Sometimes you want to have an all out,  pull-out-all-the-stops free-for-all, all day, special occasion, feast day, soup-to-nuts cook-a-thon. And sometimes (most of the time) you just want something tasty for supper that is neither an indulgence in time or in calories, something you can make in half and hour or so with ingredients that are easy to pick up on the way home from a busy day, something that doesn’t make you consider re-upping your gym membership and getting a cholesterol test taken again. I’m talking about “convenience food” in some shape or form, but I’m not talking about a blue box of mac and cheese or a bucket of fried chicken from a drive-thru.

I am talking about chicken, though. Boneless chicken breast is undeniably a convenience food. They are totally easy to find in any market, quick to cook, lean, and easy to portion. It’s not usually my favorite piece of chicken  for a couple of reasons: first, because it is so lean, unlike the legs and thighs, it tends to be pretty flavorless on its own, and second, it can go from undercooked to dry, stringy, and rubbery in a New York minute if it isn’t treated properly. But there are at least a couple of ways to take advantage of  the convenience factor without losing the good eats factor.

    Poaching is one cooking technique that will infuse flavor without drying the meat out. If I’m going to make chicken salad, I usually poach the chicken breast. For some reason, I usually prefer poached chicken when it’s eaten chilled.  Another option (the one I’m talking about here) is to slice a pocket into the chicken breast that will create as much surface contact as you can between the chicken and a flavorful filling, a filling that contains enough moisture to steam itself  through the blander chicken surrounding it, but not so moist that it ends up just turning everything into a puddle.

I guess traditionally I think of a bread crumb based stuffing-like for turkey at Thanksgiving – but if you think about it in terms of a savory tart filling, vegetables can really be the star. I probably had  spanakopita on my mind when I came up with this particular combination but if If you can think of a flavorful vegetable that would be good with chicken, it will probably be good in chicken. I usually quickly roast or saute my vegetables first to cook off a little of the water that they naturally contain, just to soften them and  concentrate their flavor, then add some seasoning and a little something to oomph the flavor (in this case, feta) and then while it’s still hot, stuff the chicken and stick it in the oven for a few minutes.

Chicken Breast stuffed with Spinach and Feta

-2 boneless chicken breast halves (I used skin-on, but boneless skinless may be easier to find)

– Oil to saute’ and oil the baking dish

-1 shallot, minced

-2 cloves garlic, minced

-6 ounces spinach leaves, rinsed and roughly chopped (frozen thawed spinach works well too)

-Pinch each of dried basil and oregano

-1/3 cup panko crumbs (or dry bread crumbs)

2 ounces crumbled feta

-Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 350 °

In a large saute’ pan or skillet, heat a splash of oil over medium low heat. Add the shallot and garlic  with a pinch of salt and cook until they begin to soften. Sprinkle the basil and oregano over and stir everything together until the herbs become fragrant. Add the spinach leaves to the pan. Don’t bother to dry the spinach when you rinse it; the water that clings to the leaves should be enough to wilt and steam the spinach. Once the spinach has shrunken and wilted, take the pan off the heat. Gently stir in the panko and feta chunks. The panko will absorb most  of the residual liquid in the pan, leaving you a moist but not soupy filling.

 Place each chicken breast on a cutting board, skin side up, so that it looks like an upside-down pear shape. With a sharp knife, make slit all the way down the center of the top of the chicken breast, starting just below the wide end so that it will still hold its shape after it is filled. Then use the point of the knife to slice pockets into the meat on either side of the slit, widening the cavity so that the stuffing is making as much contact with the chicken as possible. This is what will help keep the chicken from drying out while it’s cooking.

Divide the still-hot spinach mixture between the two chicken breasts. It should be a generous amount, enough to fill the pockets in the meat and mound up in the middle. Smear a tiny bit of oil in the bottom of a baking dish to keep the chicken from sticking to the bottom.  Bake the chicken for about 20 minutes, until the chicken is done and the filling is bubbling and beginning to brown on top.