Recipe: Orecchiette with Orange Cauliflower, Raisins, Pine Nuts, and Saffron
I stand in my kitchen holding an orange cauliflower, and I think, this has to be one of the most beautiful vegetables I’ve seen in a long time. It looks like a cauliflower drenched in creamy cheddar cheese. In fact it is sometimes called cheddar cauliflower. I was told by the upstate farmer I purchased it from that the orange color remains after cooking. I was skeptical, since I’ve cooked up bright green and deep purple cauliflowers, and they both faded to pale beige-gray when blanched.
I knew this cauliflower was destined for a pasta sauce. I love cauliflower with pasta, especially when I prepare it in Sicilian fashion, with noble additions such as pine nuts, almonds or pistachios, raisins, saffron, bay leaf, and sometimes wild fennel or anchovies, sometimes capers. I thought about all these opulent Sicilian possibilities and picked quite a few for this dish. And, more important, I can report that the orange color remained after cooking, even becoming more orange. The taste is about the same as that of the more standard white varieties, but when the little orange florets are tossed with pasta, they don’t blend into one big bowl of off-white the way traditional cauliflower does. The orange prettily pops out at you. It’s a happy look. We get a little free beauty in our bowl, which is fine with me. I’ll take beauty wherever I can get it.
Cauliflower with pasta is a very delicious and very healthy dish, as anyone who reads this blog knows, but too much pasta is still too much pasta. I’m really trying to get into the habit of eating pasta as a first course, in true Italian fashion. The Italians have got the thing worked out, and they know that pasta won’t make you fat if you do as they say: Make every pasta dish beautiful and delicious, and savor every bite. Then take it away and move on to something lean and something green. I’ve come up with a few excellent dishes, mostly meat or fish preparations, that I put together while I’m preparing a pasta and serve just warm or at room temperature, along with a green salad. A small bowl of perfect pasta, a small protein course, and a gorgeous green salad—that’s my idea of a great meal, and one that won’t have you running back and forth into the kitchen all night when you should be relaxing and enjoying your dinner with friends or family. I’ll be posting recipes for some of these post-pasta dishes soon. In the meantime, enjoy your pasta.
Orecchiette with Orange Cauliflower, Raisins, Pine Nuts, and Saffron
(Serves 6 as a first course)
1 small orange cauliflower or ½ a larger one (or use a white, green, or purple one), cut into small florets
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 large Vidalia onion, thinly sliced
4 anchovy fillets, chopped
1 fresh bay leaf
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound orecchiette
½ cup pine nuts, lightly toasted
½ cup black raisins, soaked in ¼ cup dry white wine
A generous pinch of saffron threads, dried, ground to a powder, and soaked in a few tablespoons of warm water
6 large thyme sprigs, the leaves chopped
A handful of Italian parsley leaves, lightly chopped
A chunk of Moliterno or another aged pecorino cheese for grating
Set up a big pot of pasta cooking water, and bring it to a boil. Season generously with salt, and drop in the cauliflower. Blanch for about 3 minutes. Scoop the cauliflower from the pot into a colander with a large strainer spoon. Run cold water over it to stop the cooking and to set its beautiful orange color. Let it drain.
Choose a large skillet, and get it hot over medium flame. Add two tablespoons of olive oil and the onion, the anchovy, and the bay leaf.
Bring the water back to a boil, and drop in the orecchiette.
Sauté the onion until it’s soft and fragrant, about 5 or 6 minutes. Add the cauliflower, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté until the cauliflower is just tender, about 3 or 4 minutes longer. Add the raisins and wine, the pine nuts, the saffron water, and the thyme, and let everything simmer for a minute or so.
When the orecchiette is al dente, drain well, saving about a cup of the pasta cooking water. Pour the pasta into a large, warmed serving bowl. Add the parsley, a few more turns of black pepper, and a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give it a toss. Pour on the cauliflower sauce, and toss again, adding a little of the pasta cooking water if needed to loosen the sauce. Serve hot.