We all love ripe summer tomatoes, and in high season, dust gathers on those 28-ounce cans in the pantry. And so it should: Why get out the can opener when the farmers markets are full of sweet, acidic, juicy, fleshy, perfect fruit?
But even during tomato season, I occasionally miss red sauce made from good-quality canned tomatoes, something I stubbornly refuse to make until the market produce gets awful or disappears altogether, which can be as late as October. Now that last summer’s fresh tomatoes are a memory, I make sauce using the canned ones without a twinge of regret or guilt. Whew.
And since we’re already on the slippery slope of using non-seasonal ingredients, why not slide the whole way to gastronomic perdition? Invariably, once we have tomato sauce in the house (see below for how I make mine), Jackie and I have yens that are out of sync with the local-produce calendar: eggplant parmigiana, for example. And cauliflower.
Ah, cauliflower. What a great thing it is: recognizably cabbagy but sweet and juicy. And with some of that tomato sauce, it recently made for an excellent pasta dish — or rather a vegetable dish with pasta. For the two of us, I first prepared some 1/4-inch croutons by sauteing a diced baguette in olive oil and giving the pieces a sprinkle of salt. Near dinnertime, I cut 2/3 head of cauliflower into bite-size pieces, blanched them for two minutes in boiling salted water (which I did not throw away) and put them into a large skillet slicked with olive oil to cook off some of the remaining moisture.
To the cauliflower, I added a generous 2/3 cup of tomato sauce, which I seasoned with salt and lots of black pepper and warmed through as I cooked pasta (zitilike in shape) in the cauliflower water. I used about half as much pasta as I would for a normal portion, about two ounces apiece; there was already plenty to eat in that skillet.
When the pasta was done, I combined it with the cauliflower-tomato mixture, loosened it with some of the cooking water and added grated parmesan. The croutons we sprinkled on at the table so that they wouldn’t get too soggy.
As Jackie says whenever we have something along these lines: This is just the kind of dish you’ll never — or rarely — find in a restaurant. It’s just too simple. Pasta, cauliflower and tomato sauce are the only obligatory ingredients: The croutons and cheese are frills, not that I’d want to do without them. You could gussy up the dish with toasted pine nuts or walnuts in place of the croutons, or with diced mozzarella, or with chopped parsley. But that would almost betray the cauliflower’s pleasantness.
On that tomato sauce: Most cooks have their own way of making this staple. Mine is to soften a little bit of chopped onion (or shallot or leek) and a small whole peeled clove of garlic in olive oil (no carrots, no celery) until the onion is completely cooked, then add a 28-ounce can of tomatoes. I first squeeze them with my hand to crush them: It’s one of the most pleasant sensations of cooking, along with patting a risen ball of yeast dough. I add salt (no pepper!), sometimes a few leaves of sage or a sprig of thyme and quite a bit of good olive oil (at least two tablespoons). Oil that hasn’t been heated to cook the onions has a different, clearer flavor, and this is what I like the sauce to taste of. I cook it, slowly, for about 40 minutes, and that’s that. It keeps in a cold fridge for the better part of a week, and it freezes well.