Why It Works
- Extended cooking and vigorous stirring makes cauliflower break down into a hearty sauce.
- Sicilian pantry staples—anchovies, raisins, pine nuts, saffron, and toasted breadcrumbs—strike a characteristic savory-sweet balance with North African influence.
- Tossing the pasta with toasted breadcrumbs helps to achieve the perfect noodle-coating sauce consistency, and a sprinkling of the same crumbs gives the finished pasta a crunchy topping.
Sicilian cuisine is famous for its mix of savory, sweet, and sour flavors, evidence of the heavy influence on the island of centuries of North African and Spanish rule. To produce that combination of flavors, Sicilian cooks turn to pantry ingredients like anchovies, saffron, pine nuts, and raisins, and toasted breadcrumbs. In Palermo, the region's capital, the way these staples are used together is evident in a trio of pasta dishes: pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines), pasta c'anciuova e muddica atturrata (pasta with anchovies and toasted breadcrumbs), and pasta chi vruoccoli arriminati (pasta with stirred cauliflower).
My friend Salvatore Agusta, a native Palermitano and sommelier who also runs a business organizing street food tours in the city, compares this grouping of pastas to Rome's Big Four: "It's similar to how carbonara, gricia, amatriciana, and cacio e pepe share black pepper, Pecorino Romano, and guanciale, with varying amounts of each and additions of other ingredients like tomato or egg to achieve dishes that taste distinctly different, but also echo and complement each other. In Palermo, we have our ingredients—anchovies for umami, saffron for floralness, pine nuts for nutty bitterness, raisins for sweetness, and breadcrumbs for their salty crunch. Combining them with sardines, or tomato estratto, or in this case cauliflower, gives us three unique pastas with shared commonalities."
For pasta chi vruoccoli arriminati, it's the intentionally overcooked cauliflower that sets the dish apart. Not to be confused with broccoli, Sicily's "broccolo," or "vruocculu" in Palermo dialect, is what we know as cauliflower, and its peak season is in the fall. While most types of cauliflower will work for this recipe, light green varieties, like Romanesco, are ideal.
You start the process by trimming a head of cauliflower into florets and simmering them in salted water until they're tender enough to crush with a wooden spoon. You then add them to a skillet in which chopped onion has been gently cooked with anchovies in olive oil. Scoop some of the water you used to cook the cauliflower into the pan, along with the familiar cast of raisins, toasted pine nuts, and a pinch of saffron*, and bring everything to a simmer. At this stage, that cooking water is doing a lot of heavy lifting: it's helping to break down the cauliflower, plump the raisins, bloom the saffron, and soften the pine nuts. And now it's "arriminare," or stirring, time.
Salvatore also recommends adding a pinch of fennel pollen, which complements the floral notes of the saffron (I tested this recipe with and without it, and it's a great optional addition).
As the sauce ingredients come to a simmer, get to work with a wooden spoon, stirring, smooshing, and swirling the florets, coaxing them to break down and thicken the liquid in the pan to take on a thick, saucy consistency. While that's happening, you cook the pasta until just shy of al dente in the same cauliflower-cooking water; short, tubular sedani or long bucatini are the shapes of choice. Finish the pasta in the skillet with the sauce, tossing a handful of breadcrumbs in at the last moment to give the sauce extra body, and then topping each serving with a final sprinkling for crunch. The nutty sweetness of the cauliflower plays off the pine nuts and raisins, the savory anchovies do their thing in the background, and even though it's got close relatives in Palermo, one taste will tell you this is a vegetable pasta unlike any other.
- For the Toasted Breadcrumbs:
- 8 ounces (225g) bread, cut into 3/4- to 1-inch pieces (see note)
- 1 tablespoon (15ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- Kosher salt
- For the Pasta:
- Kosher salt
- 1 small head (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 pounds; 700 to 800g) cauliflower, preferably green Romanesco, cut into 1- to 2-inch florets
- 1/4 cup (60ml) extra-virgin olive oil
- 1 small (4-ounce; 115g) yellow onion, finely chopped
- 5 anchovy fillets (15g)
- 2 tablespoons (30g) golden raisins
- 2 tablespoons (30g) pine nuts, lightly toasted
- Pinch saffron threads
- Pinch fennel pollen (optional)
- 12 ounces (340g) short, tubular dried pasta such as sedani or rigatoni, or long pasta such as bucatini
- 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs, divided
For the Toasted Breadcrumbs: If using fresh or lightly stale bread, adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat oven to 325°F (165°C). (If using fully stale and dried bread, skip baking step.) Arrange bread in single layer on rimmed baking sheet and bake until completely dried, 20 to 30 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature, about 5 minutes. Transfer bread to food processor bowl (set aside but don't clean rimmed baking sheet), and pulse until reduced to small crumbs, taking care not to over-process into a fine powder, 8 to 10 pulses.
Combine breadcrumbs and 1 tablespoon (15ml) oil in a large skillet and cook over medium-low heat, stirring and tossing occasionally, until crisp and golden brown, 8 to 10 minutes. Season lightly with salt. Transfer toasted breadcrumbs to reserved rimmed baking sheet, spread into an even layer, and set aside to cool to room temperature; wipe out skillet. Once cool, set aside 1/2 cup (60g) toasted breadcrumbs for the pasta, and transfer remaining crumbs to an airtight container for future use; the extra breadcrumbs can be stored at room temperature for up to 2 weeks.
For the Pasta: Bring a pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add cauliflower and cook at a rapid simmer, stirring occasionally, until floret pieces are very tender and offer no resistance when poked with a paring knife at thickest part of stem end, about 10 minutes. Using a spider skimmer, fine-mesh strainer, or slotted spoon, drain cauliflower while keeping boiling water in the pot; transfer cauliflower to a bowl or plate and set aside.
Meanwhile, heat 1/4 cup (60ml) oil in now-empty skillet over medium heat until shimmering. Add onion, season lightly with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until softened but not browned, 5 to 7 minutes. Add anchovies and cook, stirring and breaking up anchovies occasionally with a wooden spoon, until anchovies have dissolved, about 4 minutes.
Add cauliflower to skillet along with 1 cup (240ml) reserved cooking water, raisins, pine nuts, saffron, and fennel pollen (if using). Season lightly with salt, bring to a rapid simmer over medium-high heat, and cook, stirring and breaking up cauliflower with a wooden spoon, until florets break down to form a thick, yellow-tinged sauce (thanks to the saffron), 8 to 10 minutes. Add more cooking water in 1/4-cup (60ml) increments as needed to ensure there is enough liquid in the pan to coax cauliflower into breaking down into a saucy consistency.
Meanwhile, cook pasta in the reserved pot of boiling water used for cooking the cauliflower until pasta is just shy of al dente (about 2 minutes less than the package directs). Using a spider skimmer (or tongs if cooking bucatini), transfer pasta to sauce, along with 1/2 cup (120ml) pasta cooking water. Alternatively, drain pasta using a colander or fine-mesh strainer, making sure to reserve at least 1 cup (240ml) pasta cooking water.
Increase heat to high and cook, stirring and tossing rapidly, until pasta is al dente and cauliflower has broken down even further so that sauce coats noodles and pools around edges of the pan, about 2 minutes; add more pasta cooking water in 1/4-cup (60ml) increments as needed to achieve desired consistency.
Remove from heat, add half of the breadcrumbs (1/4 cup; 30g), and toss to combine. Pasta should be well-coated but not swimming in sauce (the sauce will continue to tighten up in the time it takes to plate and serve). Adjust sauce consistency as needed with more pasta water if it seems too dry. Divide pasta between individual serving bowls, sprinkle with remaining breadcrumbs, and serve right away.
Muddica atturrata (toasted breadcrumbs) are traditionally made with pangrattato—breadcrumbs made by processing stale bread. This recipe is written to make extra toasted breadcrumbs from fresh or stale bread (we used sourdough bâtard during recipe testing, but most types of white bread will work fine) because if you are taking the time to make your own breadcrumbs, you might as well make a big batch so you have some ready to go in your pantry for future use. If you don't want to make your own breadcrumbs, you can substitute 1/2 cup (35g) panko breadcrumbs, and toast them with oil as written in the recipe.
Make-Ahead and Storage
The toasted breadcrumbs can be made up to 2 weeks in advance and stored in an airtight container at room temperature. The pasta is best enjoyed immediately.