Deborah Madison's cauliflower and pasta dish from her new cookbook Vegetable Literacy is a surprise of a recipe. It almost looks like something I'd throw together without thinking, but has a few tweaks that make it stand out from my ordinary dinners. First, Madison uses what may look like a dangerous amount of red pepper flakes; her scant teaspoon looks menacing compared to my usual pinch or two. Also, she throws in parsley, lots of parsley, in three places, some of it is cooked with garlic to mellow, some of it is wilted into the cooked pasta, and the rest is thrown in at the end for a bright finish.
But the real winner here is saffron. The floral taste of saffron always reminds me of bouillabaisse; tasting bites of Madison's cauliflower dish takes my mind to the French stew but for much less time and effort.
Why I picked this recipe: I pair cauliflower with pasta on a regular basis, but never would have thought to add saffron.
What worked: The finished dish had a great balance of earthy cauliflower and floral saffron. Copious amounts of olive oil (use your best here!) don't hurt things either.
What didn't: I thought the use of three pots for a simple pasta dish was a bit silly. Next time, I'll skip par-steaming the cauliflower and just give it more time in the skillet (with a little more water added). I ended up needing to cook it in the skillet longer than written anyway.
Suggested tweaks: You could give this same treatment to broccoli if you wanted, and could certainly use whole wheat pasta for a heartier take. If you're not inclined to spend the money on saffron (but you really should, just this once), a couple of pinches of turmeric will add similar color.
Reprinted with permission from Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening with Twelve Familes from the Edible Plant Kingdom, with over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes by Deborah Madison. Copyright 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. Available wherever books are sold.
Deborah Madison's Cauliflower with Saffron, Pepper Flakes, Plenty of Parsley, and Pasta
- 1 cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), broken into small florets, the core diced
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tossing the pasta
- 1 onion, finely diced
- 2 pinches of saffron threads
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Scant 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- 4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- Sea salt
- 8 ounces pasta shells, snails or other shapes
- Grated aged cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Steam the cauliflower florets and core over boiling water for about 3 minutes. Taste a piece. It should be on the verge of tenderness and not quite fully cooked. Set it aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, 6 minutes or so. The steam will activate the saffron so that it stains and flavors the onion. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and a few pinches of the parsley, give them a stir, and then add the cauliflower. Toss the cauliflower to coat it with the seasonings, add 1/2 cup water, and cook over medium heat until the cauliflower is tender, just a few minutes. Season with salt, toss with half of the remaining parsley, and keep warm.
While the cauliflower is cooking, cook the pasta in the boiling water seasoned with salt until al dente. Drain, transfer to a warmed bowl, and toss with a few tablespoons of oil and the remaining parsley. Taste for salt, then spoon the cauliflower over the pasta, wiggle some of it into the pasta crevices, grate the cheese on top, and serve.
Variation with shrimp: When wild Gulf shrimp are in season, take advantage of their sweet goodness. Peel 1 pound shrimp, then sauté them over high heat in olive oil until pink and firm, after 5 minutes or so. Toss them with chopped garlic and parsley and divide them among the individual pasta plates or heap them over the top of the communal dish. Omit the cheese.