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Humble cauliflower pasta worthy of a love letter

  • NEW YORK TIMES

    This cauliflower pasta dish does not compromise. It’s comfort food, but also mostly vegetables. It’s complex, but quick.

While I consider nearly every meal I make an opportunity for recipe development, sometimes the food I cook for myself at home when nobody is watching is, well, not very impressive. It can feel too simple, too beige or too boring to ever see the light of day. I lovingly refer to those dishes as “personal dinners.”

Dishes like this creamy cauliflower pasta fall into the “personal dinner” category. But after careful consideration, I have deter­mined that it’s too wonderful not to publish.

It’s not much to look at — a pretty simple, certainly beige, not-at-all-boring skillet pasta. And yet I no longer feel embarrassed to share. Creamy cauliflower pasta, I love you, and I don’t care who knows it!

This pasta does not compromise. It’s comfort food, but also mostly vegetables. It’s complex, but quick. Sure, there might be an entire cup of heavy cream involved — I believe that if you’re going to go for it, you should really go for it — but there’s an entire head of cauliflower, too. There’s creamy richness, but there’s also salty crunch (from pecorino breadcrumbs, which are made in the same skillet, thank you very much). There’s deep, savory flavor from lightly caramelized shallot, but also a light breeze from lemon zest and chopped chives.

If it wasn’t already obvious, I will come clean now and tell you that, yes, this is essentially a more evolved version of macaroni and cheese. That said, the cauliflower content is so high that I felt the recipe deserved a different title, so here we are.

The technique is also a little less scary, in that there is really no technique. No building of a separate sauce, no thickening of a roux. Just sliced or chopped cauliflower sauteed until lightly golden and simmered with a bit of cream and grated cheese. It’s used to coat large tubes of al dente pasta, and is topped with those crisped golden-brown breadcrumbs.

This pasta is best eaten straight from the skillet with one fork, but that directive is negotiable. It is, after all, your personal dinner.

Creamy Cauliflower Pasta With Pecorino Bread Crumbs

  • Kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
  • 8 ounces rigatoni, ziti or campanelle pasta
  • 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 3/4 cup fresh coarse bread crumbs or panko
  • 1/2 cup finely grated pecorino cheese, divided, plus more for serving
  • 1 large shallot, finely chopped
  • 1 medium head cauliflower (about 2 pounds), outer leaves and stem removed, sliced about 1/2-inch thick (it’s OK if it crumbles)
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest, plus more for serving
  • 1/2 cup finely chopped chives
  • Red-pepper flakes (optional), to taste

Bring a large pot filled with salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until al dente; drain and reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium. Add bread crumbs and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until bread crumbs are evenly toasted and golden brown, 4 to 6 minutes.

Add 1/4 cup pecorino and toss to coat, letting the cheese melt and clump among the breadcrumbs (think granola-like clusters). Remove from heat and transfer to a small bowl or plate; set aside.

Wipe out skillet and heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add shallot and cauliflower; season with salt and plenty of black pepper. Cook, tossing occasionally, until cauliflower has completely softened and both cauliflower and shallots are beginning to caramelize and brown, 12 to 15 minutes.

Add heavy cream and lemon zest; bring to a simmer, then let cream reduce and thicken, 2 to 4 minutes.

Season with salt and plenty of pepper. If pasta is still cooking, remove skillet from heat and set aside until pasta is ready.

Return skillet to medium heat and add pasta to cauliflower, along with remaining 1/4 cup pecorino and 3/4 cup of pasta water. Cook, tossing to coat pasta and thicken sauce until it’s thick and glossy, and almost resembles macaroni and cheese, adding more pasta water by the tablespoon as needed, 4 to 6 minutes.

Remove from heat. Divide pasta among bowls and top with pecorino breadcrumbs, chives, more lemon zest, red-pepper flakes (if using) and more cheese, if you like. Serves 4.

Nutritional information unavailable.

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