The calendar says it is spring. We moved the clocks forward, magnolias and camellias are in bloom, the days are longer and brighter and, with some luck, the sun is less reluctant to pay us a visit – well, up to a point of course, we are in the UK after all.
Visiting my local market a few days ago though, I was reminded that from a culinary point of view, we are not out of winter yet; we are still in the infamous “hungry gap”: plenty of winter vegetables (celeriac, cabbages, leeks, carrots, cauliflowers) but no new, spring crop in sight. For asparagus and globe artichokes, beans and peas, patience is needed – a few more weeks to wait.
No point in whinging: time to find new ways to use those brassicas and root vegetables. This Neapolitan pasta with cauliflower comes in handy: cauliflowers, with their pale green, tender leaves hugging their floral heads, are still plentiful and of good quality.
This is one of those Italian dishes where the vegetables are cooked long and slow until creamy tender, anathema to many British cooks, and yet a method that delivers brilliant results in bringing the vegetable’s inherent sweetness to the fore. The cauliflower, with the help of some floury potatoes, breaks down into a creamy, chunky sauce that envelops the pasta in a most luxurious way. The creaminess is offset by a generous sprinking of peperoncino (chili pepper, dry or fresh) or black pepper; and a final shower of pecorino gives the sauce a robust savoury kick.
In a few weeks it will be time to celebrate the glorious British asparagus, but for the time being let’s relish the humble and reliable cauliflower.
Pasta e cavolo
For 3 to 4 portions
a couple of cloves of garlic
a pinch of peperoncino, dry or fresh (finely chopped) or a lot of black pepper at the very end
half a large cauliflower, crumbled into the tiniest florets, about 500 g
One floury potato, peeled and diced small
200 g short pasta, like tubetti or lumachine; an equally good alternative would be to use spaghetti broken into short pieces
extra chilly, or chilly oil or black pepper
chopped parsley, if you like it
In a roomy pan, fry a couple of cloves of garlic and some chilli pepper in plenty of oil. You can use dry Italian chillies (peperoncino) or fresh red chillies, finely chopped. Alternatively, you can avoid the chillies altogether at this stage and add a very generous grinding of black pepper at the very end.
Remove the garlic when golden and add the cauliflower and the potato.
Give them a good mix and let them absorb the oil, barely cover with hot water, salt (but not too much – you will shower the dish with pecorino at the end), cover and simmer until very tender, 30 minutes approximately.
Using a stick blender, purée one third and then add the pasta. Give it a good stir and cook it partially covered, adding some water if the pasta looks too dry – bear in mind though we are making pasta, not soup.
When the pasta is a little short of al dente, take the pan off; add a generous handful of pecorino and black pepper (if you had not used the pepperoncino in the initial soffritto). Cover it for about ten minutes: in this time the pasta will finish cooking and the flavours will come together.
Give it a stir, add some more oil (or chilli oil). If the pasta is too gloopy for your liking, add some boiling hot water, just a little – in Naples this pasta is generally eaten “ben azzeccata”, rather dense and thick and that’s the way I like it too.
You could add some chopped parsley too, if you like.
I have kept this dish bianco, without tomatoes, but I have also seen versions where tomato purée or canned plum tomatoes are added with the cauliflower, just to give the dish a blush.
In some versions, a couple of anchovy fillets preserved in oil are added to the oil at the beginning, when you remove the garlic: they will melt almost immediately.
On top of pecorino, you could add, just before serving, some fine breadcrumbs that you have separately fried in olive oil.