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Creating a dish: Cauliflower pasta
Cauliflower and penne with goat cheese
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Creating a dish: Cauliflower pasta

Cauliflower is one of those cabbage-family vegetables that's probably good for you but that, without a bit of inventiveness in the creation and care in the kitchen, can turn out awfully boring.

The other night, faced with a fresh head of the stuff, I dreamed up a meatless but rich cauliflower-and-pasta dish that seemed good enough to write down and do again. For today's article, I thought you might enjoy following along as I talk through the recipe and the process by which I came up with it.

It began, as so many of my recipe inventions do, at the grocery, where I spotted a pile of cauliflower that looked particularly appealing: Big, firm, tight and snow-white heads. I picked one home, stuck it in the crisper drawer, and then ignored it for a couple of days while waiting for inspiration.

By Tuesday, I realized it was time to do something before that pretty white head broke out in brownish acne, so I put on my trademarked chef's thinking cap and got to work.

First decision: Would I feature it in the main course or as a side dish? That one was easy. Since we had enjoyed a lamb stew the previous night and dined out shortly before that, it was time for a meatless main course. And since cauliflower boasts a distinctive, even robust flavor, it's especially well-suited to stand on its own as the lead player.

With that decided, it was time to select the rest of the cast. Cauliflower and potatoes go well together, as in the Indian Aloo Gobi (featured in the Jan. 31 FoodLetter). But wait ... what about pasta? Cauliflower turns up occasionally in Italian cookery, enough so that I remembered the Italian name (Cavolfiore). But I couldn't ever recall eating it in an Italian restaurant, at home or abroad, except raw as a dipping item in bagna cauda, the northern Italian hot olive-oil "fondue."

So cauliflower and pasta it was, and the rest was just a matter of bringing it all together. Breaking the cauliflower into tiny florets, cooking them until tender and then tossing them with short pasta (specifically, quill-shaped penne) seemed like a good plan, and cheese definitely had a place at the table. Since I was thinking toward a fairly light meal (with my fingers crossed as I put in the cheese and an enriching egg), I decided to puree part of the vegetable itself to make the base for a healthy sauce. And just a whiff of aromatic Indian spice would add a bit of flavor complexity plus an international "fusion" touch.

What we had here, I realized, after coming around to the destination by a long and circling road, was really a sort of stovetop macaroni and cheese - with cauliflower. It would be a "gourmet-style" mac-and-cheese, though, with interesting cheeses and a relatively high proportion of pasta and vegetables to cheese and egg.

Here's the recipe. If you try it, I hope you'll let me know how it went, particularly if you come up with an interesting variation. Since encouraging creativity in the kitchen is a big part of what the FoodLetter is all about, I hope this might inspire you to come up with some inventions of your own - and to tell me about them by E-mail ( or on our Food Lovers' Discussion Group Forum

Cauliflower and penne with goat cheese

This dish should take well under one hour to cook.

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

1 head of cauliflower
1 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 large clove garlic
1/4 teaspoon brown mustard seeds
1/4 teaspoon cumin
Sea salt
1 cup water
4 ounces penne or other short pasta
1 egg
Mild paprika
3 tablespoons mild goat cheese (I used Capriole from Indiana, and would encourage you to seek similar artisanal brands in your region)
2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese


1. Separate the cauliflower into small florets, breaking off as many as possible and cutting the larger florets into quarters or smaller so all the pieces are roughly the same size. However, there's no need to be finicky about precision on this. The amount is not critical, either. I used about 1 pound of cauliflower, but you can use more or less depending on the size of the head and, frankly, how much you like cauliflower.

2. Chop the garlic fine. Heat the butter in a large saucepan over medium-high heat and sautee the garlic, brown mustard seeds and red-pepper flakes (only use a dash - we're looking for piquancy here, not fiery heat) until the garlic is golden. Add the cauliflower florets and cook, stirring and tossing, until some of the florets start to brown at the edges. Add the cumin plus sea salt to taste, and pour in the water, using no more than you need to barely cover the cauliflower. (If time is not a factor, you can substitute the quick vegetable broth used in last week's radicchio risotto recipe or, if you don't care about keeping the dish fully meat-free, chicken broth for extra flavor.)

3. Turn the heat to very low, cover, and let the cauliflower simmer for about 15 minutes, checking occasionally. You want it tender but not mushy, bearing in mind that veggies in the cabbage family can go from sweet-smelling to foul all too rapidly if they overcook. When they appear to be nearly done, start the penne cooking in a large pan full of well-salted water. It should take about 12 to 14 minutes to cook, depending on the brand.

4. When the cauliflower is just about cooked, take it off the heat and put about one-third of the vegetables and all the cooking liquid into a separate container and buzz it with a stick or upright blender until it's a smooth but still textured puree. Stir in the egg, then the goat cheese, and return this mixture to the pan with the rest of the cauliflower. It's OK to hold it over very low heat briefly if the pasta isn't quite ready.

5. When the pasta is al dente, drain it well and add it to the waiting vegetable, cheese and egg mixture. Stir together gently, stir in the Parmigiano and a shake of paprika, and serve.

POSSIBLE VARIATIONS: The next time I make this dish, I might experiment with more onions as aromatics, adding a chopped shallot with the garlic at the beginning and a fistful of minced scallions at the end. A touch of curry flavor along with the cumin and mustard seed might also be interesting.

MATCHING WINE: This dinner needs a white wine, and it went very well with two disparate Italian options: The light, sweet and peachy-fruity Saracco Moscato d'Asti featured in yesterday's 30 Second Wine Advisor made a remarkable match that created a virtual taste-bud explosion with the food. Maso Poli Trentino Pinot Grigio, a delicate but complex dry white, made a more traditional match; as long as you don't go overboard with chile pepper or curry flavors, this dish will make a good companion with almost any white wine from Pinot Grigio to Sauvignon Blanc and on up the richness scale to Riesling or Chardonnay.

Let us hear from you!

If you have suggestions or comments about The 30 Second Wine Advisor's FoodLetter, or if you would like to suggest a topic for a coming edition and recipe, please drop me a note. I really enjoy hearing from you, and I try to give a personal reply to all mail if I possibly can. The Ask A Question form at is the easiest way to reach me, but if you prefer, you may also send E-mail to


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Thursday, April 18, 2002
Copyright 2002 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

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