Cauliflower, Italian style

Italians often pair the delicate cauliflower florets with salty and sharp condiments.

cauliflower salad 88 (photo credit: )
cauliflower salad 88
(photo credit: )
Whenever we traveled in Italy, broccoli was easier to find on restaurant menus than its white cousin. Yet when it comes to cooking cauliflower at home, we learned a lot from the Italians. Cooks in Italy keep their cauliflower preparations simple but savory. Perhaps the most basic recipe is the one presented by Giuliano Bugialli in The Fine Art of Italian Cooking. You boil the cauliflower whole in salted water and serve it on a platter sprinkled with freshly ground pepper and drizzled with olive oil. Use good quality extra virgin olive oil, and you'll be impressed at how delicious it is. Italians often pair the delicate cauliflower curds, as growers sometimes call the florets, with salty and sharp condiments, like olives, anchovies, capers, pickled vegetables and, of course, their beloved parmigiano-reggiano, or Parmesan cheese. Anna and Piero Serra, authors of a book on the cuisine of the province surrounding Naples, called La Cucina della Campania, prepare cavolfiore stufato, or stewed cauliflower, a name that gives no hint of its lively character. They slowly cook the cauliflower florets with extra virgin olive oil and garlic, and then add pitted black olives. This easy-to-make dish has few ingredients, but it is bursting with flavor. In the southern region that forms the toe of the Italian boot, Calabrians serve a colorful variation for the holidays, wrote Mary Amabile Palmer in Cucina di Calabria. The cauliflower is flavored not only with garlic and olives but also with capers, sweet peppers, parsley and a drizzle of red wine vinegar. Cauliflower with anchovy sauce can be prepared just as quickly - a few anchovies are mashed in hot olive oil, seasoned with freshly ground pepper and poured over cooked cauliflower. Naturally, cooks in Italy have come up with a way to partner pasta with cauliflower. For an exotic, cheeseless recipe, Paola Scaravelli and Jon Cohen, authors of Cooking from an Italian Garden, prepare macaroni with cauliflower and saffron, for which the florets cook in a sauce of butter-sautéed onion, garlic and saffron, finished with currants, pine nuts and olive oil. Most often the cauliflower and pasta are moistened with garlic-scented tomato sauce, garnished liberally with fresh herbs and served with plenty of Parmesan. GARLIC-SCENTED CAULIFLOWER WITH BLACK OLIVES In this old-fashioned Italian recipe, cauliflower florets gain great flavor as they slowly cook with the olive oil and garlic. This easy dish is ideal for small-quantity cooking. For even cooking, use a heavy large saute pan, so that all of the cauliflower is in contact with the pan's base. If you have already-cooked cauliflower on hand, heat the florets with the sautéed garlic in a covered pan for 3 or 4 minutes to warm through and absorb flavor, then finish the dish with the olives. 550 gr. cauliflower, divided in small florets 2 to 4 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or more to taste salt and freshly ground pepper 2 large garlic cloves, chopped about 2 Tbsp. water 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 cup flavorful black olives, such as Kalamata, halved and pitted 1 Tbsp. finely chopped parsley Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a heavy saute pan over medium heat. Add cauliflower. Sprinkle with salt and saute for 3 minutes. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Add garlic and stir well. Continue to saute, adding water or more oil as necessary to prevent burning, about 7 more minutes or until the cauliflower is done to your taste. Be careful not to let garlic burn. Add olives and heat through. Sprinkle with parsley and pepper and serve. Makes 2 or 3 servings. VERMICELLI WITH CAULIFLOWER IN GARLIC-SCENTED TOMATO SAUCE Serve this cauliflower-sauced pasta with Parmesan or any flavorful grating cheese. Use fresh basil or plenty of chopped parsley to give the dish a fresh taste. For a faster dish, you can substitute 1 to 11⁄2 cups prepared tomato sauce for the chopped tomatoes, and cook it with the garlic mixture for only 5 minutes. 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, or half oil and half butter 3 or 4 garlic cloves, chopped 900 gr. ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped, or an 800-gr. can tomatoes, drained and pureed or finely chopped Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste 1 large cauliflower, divided in small florets 350 gr. to 450 gr. vermicelli or spaghetti 2 or 3 Tbsp. slivers of fresh basil or 3 to 4 Tbsp. chopped parsley Freshly grated Parmesan cheese, for serving Heat oil in a heavy medium or large saucepan. Add garlic and cook over low heat for about 30 seconds. Add tomatoes, salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Cover and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes (if using canned tomatoes) or 20 to 30 minutes (if using fresh tomatoes) or until sauce is thick. Cook cauliflower in a pan of boiling salted water for 3 minutes; it should still be crisp, as it will continue to cook in sauce. Drain well. Add cauliflower to sauce, cover and cook over low heat for 3 or 4 minutes or until just tender; add a few tablespoons hot water if sauce becomes too thick. Taste and adjust seasoning. Cook pasta uncovered in a large pot of boiling water over high heat, separating strands occasionally with a fork, for 6 to 7 minutes or until tender but firm to the bite. Meanwhile reheat cauliflower in sauce over low heat. Add half of basil. Drain pasta well and transfer to a heated serving bowl. Toss with cauliflower in tomato sauce, and with a few tablespoons cheese if you like. Sprinkle with remaining basil and serve with more cheese. Makes 6 to 8 servings. Faye Levy is the author of Sensational Pasta.