The Mixing Bowl: The Amazing Cauliflower

With a lot of texture but not a lot of flavor, cauliflower needs help in elevating it to a dish you could recommend. This recipe pours on the flavor with garlic, anchovies, onions, chili peppers and Parmesan cheese. Crunch is added with toasted buttered breadcrumbs. Roasting the cauliflower keeps it firm. You can make the recipe vegetarian by substituting the anchovies for Kalamata olives. 

This recipe is from Dabney Gough’s August 23, 2006 column in the San Francisco Chronicle. It’s one of the favorite recipes of Chef Donna Scala who, with her husband Giovanni, was chef and owner of Scala’s Bistro in San Francisco and Bistro Don Giovanni in Napa. Both restaurants are still operating but Donna is no longer alive. It’s an authentic Neapolitan recipe from Giovanni’s mother who named the recipe after him.

The cauliflower we eat today is thought by Andalusian Arab botanists Ibn al-‘Awwam and Ibn al-Baltar to be developed from a native variety that grows on the island of Cyprus. The famous Pliny the Elder, a Roman naturalist, philosopher and military commander in the first century ACE, favored the taste of cauliflower over other vegetables from the same family, Brassicaceae, like broccoli, cabbage and kale. It is truly a Mediterranean vegetable.

We usually think of cauliflowers as white but there are green, purple and orange varieties too. The orange variety contains beta-carotene like carrots and originated from a natural mutation that was found in a cauliflower field in Canada. Mathematicians have observed geometric fractal patterns, most noticeable in the Romanesco variety. Every little branch, or floret, is similar to the entire cauliflower and the angle between forms a consistent ratio.

Pasta Alla Gianni   

• 1 head cauliflower (about 2 cups florets)

• 6 tablespoons olive oil

• ¼ teaspoon dried chili flakes

Kosher salt

• Ground pepper

• ¾ chopped onion, 1 cup

• 4 cloves garlic, smashed or coarsely chopped

• 2 tablespoons minced anchovies or Kalamata olives

• ½ pound spaghetti

• ¼ cup finely chopped parsley

• ½ cup grated Parmesan

• 2/3 cup panko or breadcrumbs

Roast cauliflower first. Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Break the head into florets and put in a large bowl. Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil and sprinkle salt, pepper and chili flakes over the florets. Toss well. Spread the florets on a baking sheet and bake for about 20 minutes until florets are golden brown but still firm and edible, not mushy or hard. Put in a bowl and set aside.

Make toasted breadcrumbs. Lower oven heat to 350 degrees. Put the breadcrumbs in a bowl and stir in 2 tablespoons of olive oil, salt and pepper. Mix well, then spread onto the same baking sheet and bake for about 10 minutes, stirring and watching the crumbs so they don’t burn but turn golden brown. Set aside.

In a large sauté pan, heat 2 more tablespoon of olive oil on medium-high heat.

Add onion and sauté until lightly golden and translucent. Add garlic and mix well. Add cauliflower to pan. With the back of a spoon or a heavy spatula, break the cauliflower into small bite-sized pieces while stirring to coat. Add more salt and pepper to taste, then set pan aside.

Cook spaghetti in boiling, well-salted water according to package instructions. Before draining, reserve 1/2 cup of the cooking water and set it aside.

Place frying pan with cauliflower back over medium heat. Add the cooked pasta. Combine and add some of pasta water to make a sauce. Add more if necessary.

Add the chopped or sliced anchovies and mix. Put into a serving bowl and sprinkle with breadcrumbs, grated Parmesan and roughly chopped parsley.