Saturday, October 27, 2012

Back To My Roots - Pasta con Cavolfiore

Conchiglie con Cavolfiore, Simple, Fast and Satisfying, Photo: NK

I grew up as an only child.  While I'm very lucky to have an amazing half brother and half sister, I never lived with them, and I am the sole child of my mom and dad. My mom's an only child herself, and my dad had just one sibling. What am I getting at? I grew up feeling like my family was small. 

But that's really not the truth, as I was reminded the other day at my cousin's lovely wedding on Long Island. My immediate family may be pretty compact, but I think I never really realized how large my extended family is until they were all in one big room together. Our numbers are thanks in part to my maternal grandfather's prolific siblings and all their children and grandchildren - one of whom is my cousin Laura, the beautiful bride we had gathered to celebrate that day. 

My Pop Pop was one of 6 children born to Sicilian Immigrants who originally settled in the Lower East Side of Manhattan before hopping the East River to Brooklyn and Queens. This recent wedding, filled with people that I don't see nearly enough of, definitely brought back warm memories of my departed grandpa, and I left what was a fantastic evening feeling really invigorated. I had people! Lots of them. And we all had such fun together.

The next day, on a bit of a family-togetherness high, I was struck by the overwhelming urge to cook something to celebrate my Italian heritage. Ok, this happens a lot - but I wanted it to be something to honor my grandpa, my spicy Sicilian bloodline, and our family's proud peasant beginnings three generations removed. Ours is in no way a unique American story, but something to be celebrated nonetheless.  

Photo: NK 
I decided on one of the many simple dishes that can be found in Italy - Pasta con Cavolfiore, aka: Pasta with Cauliflower. I know, I know - it doesn't sound terribly exciting, but you'll be surprised at how its classic, clean flavor, beautifully understated, is actually quite satisfying. This dish also takes me back to growing up and to my mom's cooking. She is superb in the kitchen, but as a kid, with the exception of meatballs once in a while, dinner was nearly always Pasta with a Vegetable. Pasta with Broccoli, Pasta with Cauliflower, and on, and on. This type of largely vegetarian low-cost eating was probably a function of our less than ideal financial circumstances back then, but I didn't know the difference. I didn't feel like I was missing anything  - because I wasn't. This is the type of food that The Greatest Generation was reared on - simple, healthy, and cheap. 

My great Aunt Mae makes a to-die-for version of Pasta with Cauliflower. She serves hers with toasted breadcrumbs on top after painstakingly trimming the Cauliflower florets into perfectly uniform bits. Pasta con Cavolfiore actually originated on the Southern Italian mainland, but it is very popular in Sicily. Here, we'll be using Conchiglie, or Shell Shaped Pasta. Please don't be scared off by the Anchovies in this recipe. They totally melt and disappear into the oil providing a non-fishy, subtle flavor that works so well in this and many dishes. Husband (the Anchovy-hater) had no idea. Buon Appetito!

NK's Conchiglie con Cavolfiore 
Serves 2-3
Cooks Note: Be sure to chop & prepare all ingredients before you start to cook

1 large Head of Cauliflower
1/2 Lb of Shell Shaped Pasta, size is your choice
1/4 Cup finely chopped Italian Parsley (or optionally, toasted fresh grated Breadcrumb)
3 small Garlic Cloves, very thinly sliced
5 Anchovy Fillets packed in Oil 
Fine Quality Olive Oil (about 2 Tablespoons plus more for drizzling)
1 teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper (or 1 teaspoon dried Red Chile chopped into small bits)

Remove the Cauliflower base and allow the Cauliflower head to separate into bite-sized Florets. Pick apart Cauliflower with your hands to help it along, and finally, give it a quick rough chop to achieve a uniform size so the Cauliflower cooks evenly.

Boil water in a medium sauce pan with a good amount of Salt. Add Cauliflower Florets and cook them several minutes until they are tender but not mushy. About 4 minutes should do it. The final texture is really up to you. I generally enjoy my veggies more al dente than the next guy. Once finished, drain the Cauliflower through a colander set atop or inside a large heatproof bowl. You'll want to reserve all of your boiling liquid. Set Cauliflower Florets aside and return liquid to the sauce pan or larger pan to boil your Pasta. Add extra water if needed. Return Liquid to a boil and cook your Pasta Shells as directed on the box until Pasta is done. Remember, al dente is always best!

While Pasta is cooking, set a large skillet over a a medium-low flame. Pour in about 2 Tablespoons of Olive Oil, the Garlic, and the Crushed Red Pepper. Take care not to burn the Crushed Red Pepper or Garlic, and stir everything occasionally until the Garlic becomes slightly golden. Next, add the Anchovies. Allow them to melt into the oil. This should take 3 or 4 minutes. Feel free to stir a bit to help them along. Once Anchovies have dissolved, add the drained Cauliflower Florets into the skillet. Toss everything to combine. Lower the flame to the lowest possible setting while your pasta finishes cooking. 

Once Pasta is ready, drain it in a colander reserving about a 1/2 cup of Pasta Water. Pour drained Pasta into the Cauliflower skillet and toss. Add a couple of Tablespoons of Pasta Water and turn the flame back up to medium. Cook a bit longer until the liquid boils away and thickens. Stir in Parsley and toss. Turn off the flame. Season carefully with Salt (remember that Anchovies can be salty already) and liberally with Black Pepper. Drizzle with good quality Olive Oil. Lastly, feel free to add additional Crushed Red Pepper if you like. Serve and enjoy!  

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