Recipe: Rigatoni with Sausage, Cauliflower, and Almonds
I find that improvising with pasta is always a little harder in the winter months. Without all the summer Greenmarket vegetables that can transport my head to the Amalfi Coast, especially the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants (the Southern Italian triumvirate), I can strain to come up with something exciting, not too loaded with fat, and still create a dish I want to eat right now. The choices often seem downright dreary. But I realize it’s my own damned fault. My cold, cold brain, not able to think beyond the rows of canned tomatoes, often overlooks all the good produce that’s sitting all green and fresh (freshly transported, that is) on my supermarket shelves.
Escarole, for instance. My mother always made pasta with that (salads too, crunchy bitter salads), flavoring it with garlic, white wine, and red pepper flakes. I loved this pasta. Leeks, chicory, radicchio, kale, dried cecis and cannellini beans (or good quality canned), broccoli rabe, endive, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, and cauliflower (a personal favorite, which is why I included it in this recipe). Carrots and celery can also be pretty good at this time of year, so I often start a pasta sauce with a fragrant soffrito (maybe adding a little leek or shallot). And now that I can get fresh herbs all year round there’s really no excuse to let my brain fizzle into a state of stupefied non-creativity.
This pasta takes inspiration from Sicily with its mix of cauliflower, toasted almonds, and mint. That’s a time-honored combo down there, but here I’ve decided to include sausage as well. The secret to success lies in the balance. I’ve found I don’t want too much sausage. I use it more as a flavoring, the way one would pancetta. I want nicely sautéed cauliflower coated with onion, garlic, rosemary, olive oil, black pepper and any porky essence the sausage imparts. I want that to be where my taste buds head first.
Rosemary and mint might seem an odd herb combination, but they work together because I add the strong one in the beginning, while sautéing, and the lighter, leafier one right at the end. The rosemary mellows with cooking, and the mint stays bright and fresh. It’s really a beautiful mix. You might also try adding thyme early on and then finishing your dish with Italian parsley. Another good strong-to-delicate herb duo to consider is starting with marjoram or oregano, letting it simmer into the dish, and then adding fresh basil at the end. Play a little here, if you wish. Using herbs this way adds layers of flavor and a culinary depth I crave in winter pastas.
Rigatoni with Sausage, Cauliflower, and Almonds
(Serves 4 as a main-course pasta)
1 large cauliflower, cut into small florettes
Extra-virgin olive oil
3 Italian sausages (preferably without fennel seeds), out of their casings
1 medium onion, cut into small dice
1 small inner celery stalk, cut into small dice
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
About ⅛ teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 large rosemary sprigs, the leaves chopped
Freshly ground black pepper
½ glass dry white wine
½ cup homemade or good-quality purchased chicken broth
1 pound rigatoni
A big handful of slivered almonds, lightly toasted
About 10 big mint sprigs, the leaves very lightly chopped
A chunk of ricotta salata
Put up a large pot of pasta cooking water, and add a generous amount of salt. When it comes to a boil, drop in the cauliflower, and blanch for 2 minutes. Scoop the cauliflower from the water with a large strainer spoon into a colander, and run it under cold water to stop the cooking. Let it drain. Bring the water back to a boil.
In a large sauté pan heat about 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the sausage, and sauté it, breaking it into little bits with the back of your spoon. When the sausage is lightly browned, add the onion and celery, and let them soften. Then add the garlic, the rosemary, and the nutmeg, and sauté to release their flavors.
Add the rigatoni to the boiling water, and give it a quick stir to prevent sticking.
Add the cauliflower to the pan, and season with salt and black pepper. Sauté everything so the cauliflower can get nicely coated with flavor. Now add the white wine, and let it bubble away. Add the chicken broth, turn the heat to low, and simmer until the cauliflower is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the almonds, saving a small handful for garnish.
When the rigatoni is al dente, drain it, and transfer it to a warmed serving bowl. Add a generous drizzle of fresh olive oil, and give it a quick toss. Add the cauliflower sauce and about ¾ of the mint. Toss gently. Check for seasoning. Grate a little of the ricotta salata over the top, and garnish with the remaining almonds and mint. Bring the rest of the cheese to the table for grating.
I like this dish hot, but it’s also good left to sit for a few minutes and eaten warm. Somehow the flavors are even bolder that way.