“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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Soba Sriracha Salad

 I used to eat “dirt pancakes” when I was a kid. My mom cooked and baked with whole grains, so whether it was biscuits or sandwich bread or cake or pancakes, they would be hearty, honey-sweetened, and bran laden. And in the same spirit that draws children to gummy worms, “ants on a log” and to think that anything gross is hilarious,  we  named a humus-colored Saturday breakfast  “dirt” buckwheat pancakes. We ate them hot off the griddle and smeared with honey or molasses. I loved the earthy, nutty, mineral flavor, especially with the sweet iron tang of molasses. And bonus, they kind of looked like mud pies.

 I don’t remember using buckwheat for anything besides pancakes until I was introduced to soba noodles as an adult. Soba is a Japanese noodle made with buckwheat and wheat flour (I look for buckwheat as the first ingredient when I buy it) and is not only hearty and flavorful both hot and cold, but does it in about half the calories in white wheat pasta. I don’t think of myself as a “health food” cook, but the palate that I developed as a child makes me crave bright, fresh flavors that also happen to be nutritionally rich, un-messed-with foods,  fruits, vegetables, and grains that are colorful and  intensely flavored. I think that’s why I love that identifying fragrance and flavor that buckwheat has, unique and rich; that it happens to also be good for me is a bonus.

This is a one of my favorite ways to eat buckwheat – slightly chilled, slippery with toasted sesame and spicy with Sriracha hot sauce and crunchy with jewel-like strands of beautiful vegetables. It needs nothing and can stand alone as a perfectly satisfying lunch, but if you want to gild the lily, it is outstanding when accompanying broiled salmon or mackerel.

Soba Sriracha Salad

serves 4 generously

– 3 sleeves (about 10 ounces) soba noodles

– 1 medium cucumber

– 1/2 red bell pepper

– 4 green onions

– 1 small wedge of red cabbage (about 1/4 head)

– 1 medium carrot, peeled

Optional additions

– snow peas

– toasted peanuts, cashews or sesame seeds

– radish or daikon

– firm tofu

– hot chile, minced

Prepare the cucumbers, pepper, and carrots by slicing them all into fairly uniform match sticks. I cut the cucumber on a sharp diagonal and then stack the slices, slicing them again into slivers. If your carrots are nice and fat you can cut them up the same way; for skinny carrots, cut them into 2 inch-long pieces, then into thirds lengthwise before cutting them into crisp match sticks. Cut the wedge of cabbage across the middle and then shave into thin ribbons. Chop the green onions into thin discs. I cut the vegetables this way not aiming for perfect uniformity, but so that they tangle through the noodles, giving a nice mix of slippery noodle and crunchy vegetables with each fork-full.

Cook the soba noodles in boiling salted water according to the package direction, which is usually about 6 minutes. Drain into a colender and rinse with cold water until the noodles are cool.

In a large bowl, whisk the dressing together, then toss the noodles and vegetables into the dressing a handful at a time, mixing by hand after each addition. It’s a lot easier to mix as you go rather than trying to mix everything at once and it gives everything an even soaking of dressing.

Serve at room temperature of slightly cool.

Sriracha Sesame Dressing

– 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil

– 1 tablespoon olive oil

– 3 tablespoons seasoned rice vinegar

– 2 teaspoons sriracha chili sauce (or to taste, I like it slightly spicy)

– 1 clove garlic

– 1 inch-long piece fresh ginger

Optional

For a creamier dressing, add

– 1 tablespoon tahini

Whisk the oil, vinegar, and sriracha together in a large mixing bowl. Using a microplane grater, grate the garlic and ginger into the dressing and stir to mix. Let the flavors mix while you prepare the vegetables and soba noodles.

Pad Thai

I have travel envy. My sister Grace is on an island in Thailand. She met a friend in Bangkok, arriving just in time for things to heat up politically, and they migrated south to Kho Chang where it’s a little more chill, in temperament if not temperature. She says it is really hot and the food is hotter. Apparently, when she’s not island hopping to find good snorkeling spots or lounging on the beach overlooking the Sea of Siam, she’s eating food on sticks from hawker stalls, fish cakes, fiery green curry, and sweet strong Thai coffee.

I guess if I can’t go to Thailand, then Thailand must come to me. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you

Pad Thai

Don’t be intimidated by the length of the ingredient list; some items may be a little exotic, but they keep well and I use fish sauce and mirin in enough recipes not to begrudge the space it takes in my pantry.

Ingredients:

1/2 package of dry rice noodles, soaked and drained

The sauce:

4 teaspoons fish sauce

2 teaspoons mirin

2 teaspoons rice vinegar

1 minced red chili

½ grated piloncillo or 2 teaspoons palm or brown sugar

2 tablespoons tamarind sauce

Everything else:

1/3 cup finely ground roast cashews or peanuts

oil

large handfuls of mung bean sprouts

3 scallions, sliced

3-4 garlic cloves, minced

1 medium hot red chili

1/3 block firm tofu (sliced into strips and pressed between paper towels to remove water)

6 ounces peeled and tailed shrimp

1 egg

handful cilantro leaves, chilis, and coarsely chopped cashews or peanuts

The sauce, I mixed up earlier in the day. I have used a couple of different types of tamarind paste- one the blocks of tamarind that still have all of the seeds and fiber that you have to soak and strain to a ketchup consistency, and TamiCon, a little pot of what looks like tar but is actually  Tamarind Concentrate. Clever name, no? I got it at an Indian grocery store and it will stay good practically forever in my pantry. The pulpy stuff had the nicest sharp tangy molassesy flavor, but made me feel like I was squelching my hands around in the bottom of a swamp. TamiCon is convenient and easy to keep on hand, but with a flatter  more cooked flavor and less texture. So, I’m still looking for my happy tamarind medium.

My brother Israel gave me a great wok for Christmas. The only other wok I’ve owned was basically like cooking in aluminum foil in the shape of a wok which resulted in many bitter tears being shed on my part over scorched food at the bottom and raw food up the sides.  I’m enjoying the process of learning how to really use this great piece of equipment. This recipe is perfect for wok cooking because the vessel’s shape helps keep everything moving and cooking evenly. I’m also discovering what happens when you don’t get the wrist flip right. Fortunately, I keep a lot of paper towels handy.

 

Before you heat the oil in your wok or pan, make sure you have everything rinsed, diced, chopped, ready to go. The cooking moves quickly once you get started so best not to have to stop midway through to rummage through the fridge for something.  Sauté the  scallions, chili, and garlic in hot oil over medium-high heat for a few seconds until their fragrance is released. Then add a handful of mung bean sprouts and about 4 ounces of firm tofu . A big spoonful of the sauce goes in now to infuse the tofu, then add the shrimp and more of the sauce. Stir or flip (if you dare) to keep everything moving so that it is cooking evenly. Add the noodles. After a couple of seconds, test a noodle for lightly chewy doneness and add a little water if they feel too firm. Pour in any remaining sauce. Rice noodles can get really gummy if they are overcooked, so stay vigilant. Make a little empty space in the bottom of the pan and  crack the egg into the empty spot, quickly scrambling it and then stirring it into the rest of the ingredients. Sprinkle the finely ground cashews or peanuts over and toss to coat. Take the pan off the heat and tumble on the cilantro, remaining sprouts, and dust with chopped nuts.