I remember making cauliflower gratin with a mornay-like sauce in culinary school. Blanketing the soft white sauce over the steamed white florets, then sliding the pan under the broiler to create a bubbling crust with a blistered, rust-colored top. To me, this recipe exposed everything that is wrong with our approach to cooking cauliflower. Not sure what to do with a vegetable? Then simply steam it and cover it in cheese sauce!
Since that fateful night, I’ve tried to show cauliflower a little more respect by using it in recipes that showcase its strengths, such as puréed cauliflower soup with paprika, almond and milk; cauliflower mash with garlic, mustard and potato; and pan-roasted florets with a sprinkling of Parmesan. But I was intrigued when I found a recipe for cauliflower ragu in my favorite cookbook by Mario Batali.
A ragu is a thick, rich stew that’s traditionally made from slowly cooking down meat with aromatics and wine. To me, the word evokes warm, carnivorous aromas that permeate one’s house and clothes.
I love using cauliflower in a ragu instead of meat because is it is both luxurious and economical–using the entire vegetable in a way I can relate to. First the stalk, leaves and florets are cooked down with onion, garlic, olive oil and water, which brings out an almost turnip-like quality in the cauliflower that is rounded out with the addition of butter. Fried breadcrumbs and fresh rosemary add texture and a bright, woodsy contrast in flavor. The end result is velvety, creamy and satisfying enough to fill up even hardened carnivores.
Resources used: This recipe is based on one from Molto Gusto, by Mario Batali. When I mentioned on Facebook that I was making this dish, a number of readers expressed interest in the recipe, so here it is. I promise it will encourage you to think twice before smothering poor cauliflower in cheese sauce. This time why not make cauliflower the sauce instead?
Cauliflower ragu with penne
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
1 head cauliflower, rinsed and leaves reserved
1 large onion, diced
5 large cloves garlic (paper removed), smashed and divided
Salt, to taste
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 cup water
1 whole sprig rosemary, plus 2 sprigs finely chopped
3/4 cup plain breadcrumbs
3 tablespoons butter, cubed
1 box penne
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Pepper, to taste
Method: Roughly chop the cauliflower leaves. Trim the very bottom of the cauliflower stem, and cut the whole head in half down the center. Remove the core, and cut it into 1/2-inch pieces. Then cut the florets into bite-size pieces and reserve.
Heat a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the olive oil, cauliflower leaves, core, chopped onion and 3 garlic cloves. Sprinkle with salt and red pepper flakes, and cook for 2-3 minutes until the leaves soften, then drop the heat to medium low and cook for 18-20 minutes, until the cauliflower pieces are very tender.
Now add the florets, a little more salt and the water. Stir everything together, cover the pot and let it simmer for another 25 minutes, until the cauliflower starts to fall apart.
Meanwhile, warm a few tablespoons olive oil with the remaining 2 smashed garlic cloves and 1 sprig rosemary in a small skillet over medium-high heat. When the garlic and rosemary begin to sizzle, add the breadcrumbs.
Cook, tossing frequently, for about 5 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the heat and discard the garlic and herbs.
When the cauliflower looks like this:
stir in the butter. Season with salt and pepper to taste and remove from the heat.
Boil a large pot of salted water and cook the penne according to the package directions. When the pasta is al dente, use a slotted spoon or spider to spoon it into the pot with the cauliflower (a little pasta water will help loosen the ragu). Add the reserved chopped rosemary and Parmesan cheese, and toss everything to combine well. Check for seasoning, and adjust as needed.
To serve, pile the cauliflower ragu and pasta into bowls, top with a handful of breadcrumbs and a sprinkling of reserved Parmesan. Serve immediately. Serves 4-5.