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, thankyouverymuch). There’s deep savoury flavour from lightly caramelised 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 Breadcrumbs
Yield: 4 servings
Total time: 40 minutes
Kosher salt and black pepper
8 ounces rigatoni, ziti or campanelle
6 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup fresh coarse or panko breadcrumbs
1/2 cup finely grated pecorino cheese, plus more for serving
1 large shallot, finely chopped
1 medium head cauliflower, 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)
1. Bring a large pasta pot filled with salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta until al dente; drain and reserve about 1 cup of the cooking water.
2. Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add breadcrumbs and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until they’re 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.
3. Wipe out the skillet and heat remaining 3 tablespoons oil over medium heat. Add shallot and cauliflower and season with salt and plenty of black pepper. Cook, tossing occasionally, until the cauliflower has completely softened and both the cauliflower and shallots are beginning to caramelise and brown, 12 to 15 minutes.
4. Add heavy cream and 1 tablespoon lemon zest and bring to a simmer, then let the cream reduce and thicken, 2 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and plenty of pepper; if pasta is still cooking, remove from heat and set aside until pasta is ready.
5. Return the skillet to medium heat and add the pasta to the cauliflower, along with the remaining 1/4 cup pecorino and 3/4 cup of the pasta water. Cook, tossing to coat the pasta and thicken the 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.
6. 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.