Pasta e cavolo (Pasta and cauliflower Neapolitan style)

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.

16 thoughts on “Pasta e cavolo (Pasta and cauliflower Neapolitan style)

  1. Love pasta and cauliflower! It’s a staple in our house up until, well about now. But I do have a half head of cauliflower in the fridge waiting to be cooked, probably the last of the season. Will give your version a go as I’m intrigued. The one I make it a bit different (cauliflower cooked along with the pasta, flavor base of garlic, oil, anchovy and peperoncino).

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Smiling from the Southern hemisphere . . . we just lost an hour last night which means cauliflower season is on its way . . . no complaints – our winters are often almost cloud-free and we complain bitterly if the daytime temps fall below 16-18 C 🙂 !! Have never put my beloved cauliflower in such august company – it will be interesting to try !

    Liked by 1 person

      1. *laughter* Just noticed . . . . yes, you are technically correct of course – evenings are important for me and we lost that wonderful extra our of light . . . sorry !!!


  3. Can’t wait to try this – I just happen to have a cauli in the fridge ! I too think without the tomato.
    The asparagus will be with you soon and I long to see some of the ways you will use it!
    Felice Pasqua! 🐰

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Sally… it is a good, homely recipe… on asparagus: I saw today some british ones, but still too expensive… I enjoy them in the most boring way: oil and lemon, or butter and lemon.. even if I have eyed a lasagna with asparagus that I have been meaning to try for years… ciao. s

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great dish – I like it “in bianco” – the smooth, dark creaminess isn’t interrupted by the bright tomato flavor.

    Liked by 1 person

          1. Ha ha – it should be soon – I get mine from the farmer’s market – it’s picked the day before, so as fresh as you can get without growing it yourself.


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