Casarecce with romanesco cauliflower

This is one of my favourites: pasta with Romanesco cauliflower (cavolfiore romanesco). I made today’s recipe also because I was feeling inspired by a cookery class I did with a friend who’s originally from Puglia a short while ago. We cooked orecchiette with cime di rapa or turnip greens, and she told us how her family used to eat all together, sometimes thirty people at a time on their masseria or farmhouse in Puglia. Which in turn reminded me of eating the best pasta with chickpeas I have ever eaten in a restaurant in the centre of Lecce years ago. I don’t know the name of the restaurant, but I’m hoping if I go back there I might chance on it, and the familiarity of a street take me back there.

This dish also reminds me of my neighbour from Salento. When my kids were kids were little, she used to knock on my door and bring me up dishes of things to try. She’d arrived from the south, I’d arrived from the north. I always like to think of it as our form of communion over food. She taught me possibvly more than anyone that you really don’t need a long list of ingredients to make good food. This is everyday eating around the kitchen table, food that feeds and sustains us, and especially when times may be difficult.

Today I made it for lunch. My friend from Puglia would say that you should cook the cauliflower with the pasta in a pan of boiling water. I actually cooked the cauliflower early this morning. The idea is that if I do it early I don’t get to lunchtime where I’m running off to pick up my kids and still wondering “what shall I give them?!!” Of course it doesn’t always happen, the early morning cooking. I’d hate this to pass as some kind of domestic bliss.

Today I made enough to have leftovers, but for a family of four, I would suggest the following:

One head of Romanesco cauliflower

350g short pasta

1 garlic clove

2 dried chillis

Extra virgin olive oil

Boil. or steam the cauliflower until it’s just cooked. In the meantime, put the water on for the pasta. You need about a litre for every 100g of pasta, so three and half litres for 350g.

Take a large frying pan and put in some extra virgin olive oil. Then peel the garlic. You can either chop it finely or leave it whole. The same applies for the chillis. I usually leave both garlic and chillis whole and just use them to add flavour, then take them out just before serving.

When the cauliflower is cooked, cut it down a bit into smaller pieces and add to the oil, garlic and chilli. Mix it around so that it really takes on all the flavours.

Salt the water for the pasta when it starts to boil. About two dessert spoons should do it. Don’t worry if it looks like a lot of salt. The pasta cooks in it, and it’s healthier than having insipid pasta to which you need to add salt later. Then cook the pasta according to the instructions on the packet. A word of advice: always taste the pasta before draining it. Sometimes cooking times can vary slightly, and you don’t want to end up with undercooked pasta because you didn’t taste it. Trust me, I’ve been there!

The pasta should be al dente, so still have a bite to it. I tend to drain my pasta really quickly so it still has some of the cooking water hanging around, which means that when you add the pasta to the sauce it will bind more easily. If you’re unsure, just take out a ladle of pasta water before you drain it, put it in a cup and add a bit if you see that it needs it to help it come together better.

When you’ve drained the pasta, add it to the cauliflower and mix it around for a couple of minutes so that the pasta really soaks up all those flavours. This is a pasta dish that doesn’t actually need cheese, but if you do want to add some grated cheese, pecorino is perfect.

Throw a couple of bowls of olives and maybe also cherry tomatoes on the table, and pretend you’re in Puglia at the masseria of your dreams.

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