Roasting cauliflower mellows its flavor, helping it blend deliciously with sautéed bacon, red bell pepper, onion, garlic and spinach pasta. Recipe below.
Inspiration can come from the least likely places. A photograph of cauliflower and sneakers, for instance.
I’d been thinking about doing something with pasta recently. Not actively thinking about it, mind you, but just setting it on simmer on a mental back burner. I figured sooner or later, something would spark an idea. This amusingly strange photo did.
Laura over at What I Like took it to illustrate just how hefty the cauliflower was that she’d found at the market, adding “and I suppose I should mention that I have quite big feet” to further impress us with its size. The wonderful, weird incongruity of the photo caught my attention, but the quality of the light held it, the play of light and shadow. Laura said of it, “It almost looks like an Old Master still life, doesn’t it?” Never mind that Rembrandt predated sneakers by a couple few centuries, she was right.
Suddenly I knew that I wanted to make a pasta with cauliflower, but wanted this kind of visual contrast, none of the blond on blond coloring that too many cauliflower pasta dishes have. Half a beat later, I decided spinach pasta would provide it.
Sticking with the visual appeal for the moment—we eat with our eyes as well as our mouths—I chose red bell pepper to create a nice visual pop against the green pasta [and good flavor too]. Onion and garlic are nearly always a given for me when it comes to pasta, so they were in. Next came bacon. Frazer’s Restaurant & Lounge, probably our favorite St. Louis restaurant, used to serve an amazing pasta with cauliflower, bacon and cream. And besides, I’d be hard pressed to name something bacon couldn’t make better.
And that was it. No herbs, no spices, unless you count salt and pepper. There are so many big flavors at play in this dish that you really don’t need anything more. I had considered adding Parmesan cheese, but when we tasted the finished dish, it was perfectly delicious without it.
Roasting the cauliflower. We’re big fans of cauliflower and aren’t sure why more people aren’t. Raw, steamed, sautéed, it’s all delicious—no need to hide it in cheese sauce for us. But roasted cauliflower is especially nice. The essential character is still there, but it’s beautifully mellowed. Some pasta recipes with cauliflower call for simply adding the raw cauliflower to the pasta water for the last few minutes of its cooking. For this recipe, do roast it. The delicacy and depth make the extra step worth it.
Spinach Fettuccine with Cauliflower and Bacon
1 medium head of cauliflower
4 slices good quality bacon, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 red bell pepper, cored and chopped into largish strips
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
12 ounces spinach pasta [I used fettuccine]
Roast cauliflower. Preheat oven to 400ºF. Cut and break cauliflower into bite-sized florets. You should get 5 to 6 cups of raw cauliflower florets from the head—it will reduce in volume as it roasts. The 5 cups from my cauliflower became 3 cups when I roasted it. Arrange the florets in a single layer in a large glass baking dish or on a rimmed baking sheet. Drizzle with olive oil and toss to coat. Roast in the middle of the oven until tender and browned in spots, about 25 to 30 minutes. You can roast the cauliflower a day ahead if you want the pasta dish to come together more quickly the next night. Refrigerate covered.
Place the bacon pieces in a cold, large, high-sided nonstick skillet or sauté pan. Sauté over medium heat, stirring occasionally to cook on both sides, until just cooked through. You don’t want to turn it into crispy bacon bits—you want slightly chewy, meaty pieces of bacon. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate with a slotted spoon to drain. Pour accumulated bacon fat from the pan, but don’t wipe it clean.
Return the pan to the medium flame and add three tablespoons olive oil. Add the bell pepper and onion and cook until just tender, about 4 to 5 minutes, stirring frequently to avoid burning or browning—you just want to sweat the vegetables. Add roasted cauliflower to the pan and toss to combine. Cook for a minute or so to warm the cauliflower. Clear a space in the middle of the pan and add the garlic. Sauté until fragrant, about 45 seconds, then return bacon to the pan and toss to combine everything. Turn off the heat. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, cook the pasta according to package directions until al denté. Drain pasta, reserving some of the cooking liquid. Add pasta to the vegetable mixture a bit at a time, tossing to combine. If pasta seems too dry, add a little of the cooking liquid—I added a little over 1/2 cup to mine.
Using tongs, divide pasta among 4 serving bowls. You’ll find you get mostly pasta at first. That’s a good thing. You can then spoon the vegetables and bacon over the pasta for a more pleasing visual presentation. Serve.