For most of my life, I was a devoted cauliflower hater. It had the texture of soy cheese, and bore an unfortunate resemblance to the cerebral cortex.
Or so I thought, that is, until, I began roasting brussels sprouts a few winters ago. Enamored of this easy, delicious preparation, my friend Sharon suggested I try giving cauliflower the same treatment. The next time I went to the market I picked up a head, and sure enough, I adored roasted cauliflower. The high, slow heat of the oven transforms it into something sweet and a little silky, and once I start eating it, it is difficult to stop.
After a year of nothing but roasting, I was ready to branch out. I tried, and enjoyed cauliflower in gratins and soups, and sauteed with Indian seasonings. But roasted cauliflower is always in heavy rotation in my winter vegetable repertory.
This year, it has been joined by another standby, baked pasta with cauliflower. I came across this dish in Matthew Amster-Burton's Hungry Monkey. The method is simple; pasta is parboiled with a cut up head of cauliflower, tossed with cheeses, and quickly blasted in the oven at a high heat.
The first time I served it Sarah declared it her favorite dish ever. This came as no surprise to me; as it was plain and gentle, completely inoffensive, but a little bland for my taste. In other words, perfect for Sarah's palate.
Because she loved it so, and I aim to provide the best service possible, I kept dutifully making it, and while it was perfectly good, it seemed to be missing something. The last time I made it, I reread the recipe, it turned out I was indeed missing something, namely, two cups of cream. While I tend to play fast and loose with a list of ingredients, as cream was the first ingredient listed, this seemed like more than a small oversight on my part.
Although I am not afraid of cooking with cream, or fats in general, two cups seemed excessive, so I cut it back to about a cup, and added some pasta cooking water to make up for the loss of liquid. The addition of cream made all the difference in the world, transforming this from dull and dry to rich and toothsome; that's cream for you.
Since I discovered and corrected my omission, I've been playing around with this dish, substituting gruyere cheese for parmigiano, and adding some grated nutmeg, which are both natural pairings cauliflower.
Baked Pasta with Cauliflower
Adapted from Matthew Amster-Burton
1/2 cup gruyere or parmigiano reggiano
1 cup mozzarella cheese, cubed
1/4 cup ricotta cheese
1 box penne rigate
1 medium head cauliflower cut in small florets
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 500 degrees fahrenheit.
Butter a 9x12 casserole dish.
Boil pasta and cauliflower together in salted water for five minutes, and drain, reserving 1 cup cooking water. Alternately, using a wide mesh skimmer, deposit pasta and cauliflower directly from pot and into baking dish, which should provide enough cooking liquid.
Toss the drained pasta in the baking dish with the cream and cheeses. If it seems dry, add a bit more pasta liquid. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Dot top with butter and freshly grated nutmeg.
Bake 10-12 minutes, until the pasta is beginning to brown. Serve immediately.