In this approach, the vegetable becomes golden, aromatic and lively in the mouth. Serve it with or without the pasta.
When sweet gulf shrimp are in season, you'll want to add them to the recipe and omit the cheese; see the VARIATION below.
- 1 head cauliflower (about 1 1/2 pounds), broken into small florets, the core diced (about 6 cups)
- Sea salt
- 8 ounces dried small pasta shells, snails or other shapes
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tossing the pasta
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 2 pinches saffron threads
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Scant 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/4 cup finely chopped, lightly packed flat-leaf parsley
- 1/2 cup water
- Grated aged cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Bring a wide pot of water to a boil over high heat. (The pot should be large enough and deep enough for cooking the pasta.) Place the cauliflower florets and diced core in a heatproof colander and place it over the pot; cover and steam for about 3 minutes. To test for doneness, taste a piece; it should be on the verge of tenderness but not quite fully cooked. Uncover and transfer the colander to the sink to drain.
If needed, let the water return to a boil, then add a generous pinch of salt and the pasta. Cook just until al dente.
Meanwhile, heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron; cook for about 6 minutes, stirring frequently, until the onion has softened. The heat will activate the saffron so that it colors and flavors the onion. Stir in the garlic, the crushed red pepper flakes and a few pinches of the parsley, then add the steamed cauliflower. Toss to coat it evenly, then add the water and cook (over medium heat) until the cauliflower is tender, just a few minutes.
Season with salt, toss with half of the remaining parsley, and keep warm.
While the cauliflower is cooking, drain the pasta and transfer it to a warmed bowl. Toss with a few tablespoons of oil and the remaining parsley. Taste for salt, then spoon the cauliflower over the pasta, wiggle some of it into the pasta crevices, sprinkle the cheese on top (to taste) and serve.
VARIATION: Peel and devein 1 pound of gulf shrimp, then saute them over high heat in olive oil until pink and firm, after 5 minutes or so. Toss them with chopped garlic and parsley, then divide them among the individual pasta plates or heap them over the top of the communal dish. Omit the cheese.
Adapted from "Vegetable Literacy: Cooking and Gardening With Twelve Families From the Edible Plant Kingdom, With Over 300 Deliciously Simple Recipes," by Deborah Madison (Ten Speed Press, 2013).
Tested by Bonnie S. Benwick.
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