Roasted Cauliflower Pasta, while wonderfully delicious, also forever ends panic with vegetarian friends come for dinner. Omnivores have meat-centered dishes galore–braised short ribs when it’s cold, steaks, chops, and loins on the grill, plus burgers and sausages. Then there’s crock pots of pulled pork shoulder and chicken, and then smoky oven brisket. And salmon. Roast chicken and turkey. A dinner plan for fellow meat eaters is never a job.
Dinner for guests with any range of political, medical, or personal food preferences can be a fun challenge. We all want to please our guests, to feed them with care, and this can require some thought.
We lean on pasta for the meatless. But, this time we’re not falling back on spinach lasagna, sautéed cherry tomatoes tangled up in angel hair pasta, or a too-rich fettuccine Alfredo. We’re serving a heady roasted cauliflower pasta inspired by the Italian classic. It’s a perfect dish for a cool transitional month before the summer bounty of vegetables. No need for a tomato sauce, either.
Roasted cauliflower pasta requires a few simple steps, most of which can be done ahead of time. Even better, it’s the one time when overcooked cauliflower is best. Don’t boil it, instead of roast it in the oven (or on the grill) until golden brown flecks appear and a creamy texture develops. Mash it up with sautéed onions and garlic, and salty anchovies (am packed with umami). A splash or two of starchy, briny pasta water pulls it all together. Now you’ve got a sauce that really grabs onto the hot-cooked pasta.
The traditional recipe is served either with just a dusting of parmesan cheese or dressed up with pine nuts, raisins, and toasted bread crumbs. We further adorn the pasta’s “greige” palette (or, “gray-beige” as we learned while watching Oscar night fashion commentary) with a colorful, crisp vegetable or two. This time it’s mushrooms, red bell pepper, and zucchini.
Lastly, set a handful of salty-tangy salad greens on each pasta. You’ve seen this “cold-with-hot” before. Think crunchy Asian noodle bowls dressed with lettuce and bean sprouts or wood oven pizzas topped with fresh peppery arugula. Even a hot dog crowned with slaw or tacos packed with pico de gallo and iceberg count. The salad provides everything the cauliflower pasta doesn’t have—cool, crisp, tangy. Serve freshly grated parmesan or pecorino at the table and you’ve got a pasta to please everyone.
- 1/3 to ½ cup olive oil
- 1 medium onion, finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 or 3 anchovy fillets, minced (optional)
- 1 head roasted cauliflower (see recipe below under notes)
- 1 red bell pepper, cut into thin strips
- 2 medium zucchini, cut into thin strips
- 8 ounces mushrooms, quartered
- 1 pound rotelle (wagon wheel) pasta (or any short, stout shape such as fusilli or penne)
- ½ cup chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
- Grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
Cook the onion in the olive oil in a large high-sided skillet or Dutch oven over medium heat until soft, about 7 minutes.
Add the garlic and anchovies and cook a few minutes more.
Add the roasted cauliflower and mash the mixture with a large fork or potato masher. Remove from heat and set aside until just before serving. (You can do this several hours ahead, cover and refrigerate.)
To cook the remaining vegetables ahead, place the red bell pepper in a microwave-safe dish with a lid. Cook on high until crisp-tender, about 2 minutes.
Place the zucchini in a microwave-safe dish with a lid. Cook on high until crisp-tender, about 3 to 4 minutes.
Set aside until ready to assemble the pasta.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the pasta according to package directions. During cooking, remove two cups of the pasta water for finishing the sauce.
To finish the sauce, add the mushrooms and one cup of the pasta water to the cauliflower mash. Cook over medium heat until bubbly and the mushrooms are slightly cooked.
Stir in the red bell pepper and zucchini. Add additional pasta water, as needed.
Toss with the cooked pasta and parsley.
Serve the pasta in big bowls topped with parmesan and a pile of salad greens. Makes 6 servings.
1 head cauliflower, cut into small florets
Heat the oven to 450°F. Spread the cauliflower on a rimmed baking sheet or a roasting pan. Drizzle lightly with olive oil and toss to coat well. Sprinkle with salt, to taste. Roast about 30 to 40 minutes, or until fork tender and lightly browned.
Salad Greens Topping:
1 bag or a bunch of baby spinach or arugula, washed and dried, olive oil, kosher salt, juice from ½ a lemon. Drizzle olive oil over the greens in a large bowl. Sprinkle with salt. Squeeze half a lemon over the greens. Taste and adjust the salt and lemon as needed.