Still Life with Cauliflower, by Louis-Edouard Toulet.
Recipe below: Ziti with Spice-Roasted Cauliflower and Almond Celery Pesto
Isn’t it peculiar when an everyday food you grew up with and liked well enough suddenly becomes trendy? It’s that way for me now with cauliflower. It’s not the most glamorous vegetable, but it does have its intrigue, if you’re drawn to big, lumpy, stinky, round things. Frankly I think chefs are getting somewhat desperate for attention. First kale, than Brussels sprouts, now this. The cauliflower “steak” that’s been traveling around the restaurant circuit for several years now is an interesting concept. And what about the whole roasted version that looks like a nuked human brain? I recently saw that on a Manhattan menu for $48. Scary. On the other hand, pan or oven roasting is always a good method for bringing out this vegetable’s deeply hidden charm. But you can do that at home for a couple of bucks.
The aroma of boiled cauliflower is a childhood memory of mine, and not a good one. That pissy, steamy odor really carried from my grandmother’s cruciferous kitchen to fill every inch of the house. But once the air cleared, the finished product, usually pasta or soup or some sort of gratin, was enticing, especially if it included cheese. Any cheese.
A classic Southern Italian pasta with cauliflower (or broccoli rabe, or regular broccoli) often includes anchovies, garlic, and hot pepper. I often make a version of it when I’m home alone or come in late and the rest of the household is sleeping. But here I’ve settled on a different set of flavors, playing the greenness of celery and parsley against fennel, allspice, and Aleppo pepper. The aggregate taste would be hard to pin down, I think, if I didn’t know what was in it, especially since it’s all tempered with Grana Padano and almonds. It tastes of Arab Sicily, but it’s not a Sicilian dish. It’s just what I felt like mixing up.
For the pesto:
⅓ cup celery leaves
½ cup flat-leaf parsley leaves
1 garlic clove, roughly chopped
⅓ cup very fresh slivered almonds, plus a palmful lightly toasted, for garnish
⅓ cup grated Grana Padano cheese
The grated zest from 1 lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil
For the rest:
1 large cauliflower, any color, cut into small florets
1 teaspoon ground fennel seed
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
½ teaspoon ground allspice
A big pinch of sugar
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound ziti
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.
Fill a small saucepan most of the way with water, and bring it to a boil. Drop in the celery and parsley leaves. Blanch for about a minute. Scoop the leaves from the water, and drop them into an ice bath to stop the cooking and set their color. Then squeeze out as much water as possible from them.
Place all the remaining pesto ingredients in a food processor, adding about 2 tablespoons of olive oil and a little salt. Pulse until you have a fairly smooth green paste. If it seems dry and crumbly, add a little more olive oil. Put the pesto in a small bowl, and press a piece of plastic wrap over the top.
Lay the cauliflower on a sheet pan. Scatter on the fennel, Aleppo, sugar, and a sprinkling of salt. Drizzle with a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and toss to coat well. Roast until golden, tender, and fragrant, about 15 minutes. You don’t want it too dark and dry, since it will be mixing with pasta, so stop cooking it before that point.
Set up a large pot of pasta cooking water and bring it to a boil. Add salt. Drop in the ziti, and cook until al dente.
Drain the ziti, saving about a cup of the cooking water. Put the ziti in a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the cauliflower and pesto, plus enough cooking water to create a creamy sauce. Toss well. Garnish with the reserved almonds. Serve hot.