Making a meatless ragu

I remember making cauliflower gratin with mornay sauce in culinary school. Blanketing soft white sauce over steamed white florets, then sliding the pan under the broiler to create a blistered, rust-colored crust. To me, this recipe exposed everything that is wrong with our approach to cooking cauliflower. Not sure what to do with a vegetable? Steam it and cover it in cheese!

Since that fateful night, I’ve tried to show cauliflower a little more respect by letting it shine in recipes like puréed cauliflower soup with paprika, almond and milk; cauliflower mash with garlic, mustard and potato; and pan-roasted florets with Parmesan. But I was intrigued when I found a recipe for cauliflower ragu in my favorite cookbook by Mario Batali, Molto Gusto.

A ragu is a thick, rich stew that’s traditionally made from slowly cooking down meat with aromatics and wine. I love the idea of using cauliflower instead because it uses the entire vegetable in a really luxe way. 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 steadfast carnivores.

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.

Give ‘dines a chance

“I don’t think I like ‘dines,” my sister confided when I tried to sell her on pasta with sardines, toasted breadcrumbs, capers, lemon and parsley one night when she came for dinner.

How can this be? My sister has rarely met a fish or shellfish she doesn’t like. She’s been known to slurp down impressive amounts of oysters and often steals the last buttery snail when no one’s looking. Still, I find it’s tough to coax even staunch fish lovers to give sardines a try. Maybe it’s because they’re often associated with another small fish that evokes a notoriously stubborn disgust: anchovies. But I love ’em both.

Unlike the pungent, almost fermented-tasting saltiness of anchovies (perfect for melting into marinara sauce for a deeper flavor), sardines have a subtly briny, oceanic saltiness to them. They are quite meaty to bite into, making them a wonderful option for a main protein. Flavor-wise, I like them best packed in olive oil and most often buy King Oscar.

Mark Bittman offered up this recipe in a “Minimalist” column from 2010. He called this a pantry-raid pasta dish, though I can’t say I know very many people who consider sardines a pantry staple. Still, I love the combination of the toasty breadcrumbs, meaty sardines, fragrant lemon zest and briny capers–all tossed with al dente pasta. This Italian-style preparation makes the sardines approachable to even tentative palates, and the resulting dish has an unctuous saltiness that doesn’t weigh you down too much. So please just give ‘dines a chance. They deserve a permanent place in every pantry.

Pasta with sardines, capers and breadcrumbs

    1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, divided
    1/3 cup unseasoned breadcrumbs
    1 small onion, chopped finely
    Salt and pepper, to taste
    1 box spaghetti or fettuccine
    Zest of 1 lemon
    Scant 2 tablespoons capers, drained
    1 can sardines, packed in olive oil
    1/3 cup fresh parsley, roughly chopped (save a few handfuls for garnish)

Method: Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt it generously. Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. When it’s hot, add the breadcrumbs and cook, tossing frequently, until they are golden and smell toasty, less than 5 minutes. Remove, and set aside. Add the rest of the oil and the onion to the pan, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and sauté about 5 minutes until soft.

Meanwhile, add the pasta to the boiling water and cook until just tender. Drain, saving about 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid. Turn the heat under the onions to medium-high and add the lemon zest, capers and sardines; cook, stirring occasionally, until just heated through, about 2 minutes.

Add the pasta to the sardine mixture, and toss well to combine. Add the parsley, most of the breadcrumbs and a little pasta water, as needed, to moisten. Check for seasoning, and adjust as needed.

Pile the pasta into deep bowls, and garnish with more parsley and breadcrumbs. Serves 4.