Helen writes: I’ve been thinking about this pasta I had in a restaurant a couple of years ago that had a spicy sauce with tomatoes and cauliflower. I’ve canned diced tomatoes, cauliflower, and pasta – not sure what else I need or whether you can tell me how to make it.
Tony’s take: I’m with you, Helen. The restaurant Al Forno in Providence RI made a dish like this famous – a creamy sauce with t0matoes, cauliflower, cream, and chili flakes which, when pureed, would take on a pinkish hue. It’s really easy – blanch the cauliflower for a couple of minutes and then saute with some garlic and crushed red pepper flakes, simmer with canned tomatoes until tender, and then puree with a splash of cream and some Parmigiano. Toss with a sturdy pasta like rigatoni or penne – you can even throw in some sauteed Italian sausage for a little meatiness – for a nice, relatively quick (I’d say 30 minutes all in) Friday night dinner for 4.
How to do it: Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil (about 2 Tbs. salt for 1 gallon water). Cut the cauliflower into 4 cups of 1-inch florets (this will take up about half of that head) and add to the boiling water. Cook the cauliflower at a steady simmer until it starts to become tender (try one), 2 to 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the cauliflower to large plate. Reserve the water for cooking the pasta (the cauliflower will only give it a sweet flavor which is perfectly fine for cooking pasta).
Heat a couple smashed cloves of garlic (use the side of a chef’s knife to press them down and crush them) with a splash of olive oil (1 to 2 Tbs.) in a a large, heavy pot (a Dutch oven would be good) over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the garlic starts to brown lightly in places and becomes very fragrant, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cauliflower, a generous sprinkling of crushed red pepper flakes (anywhere between 1/2 tsp. to 1 tsp. depending on how how you like it), and some chopped fresh thyme or rosemary (if you have – 1 tsp. of either will do) and cook, stirring, until the cauliflower starts to brown lightly, 3 to 4 minutes. Add some canned tomatoes (I’d use a 32-oz can of either diced or whole tomatoes) and their juices and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until the cauliflower is completely tender, about 10 minutes. Add a splash of heavy cream (anywhere between 1/4 cup and 1/2 cup would be good – this will give the sauce some richness and the desired pink hue – you can omit this if you can do without the calories) and some grated Parmigiano (1/2 cup) and puree using an immersion blender or in batches in a regular blender. Season generously with salt and pepper to taste and hold the sauce over low heat.
While you’re making the sauce, cook the pasta (1 lb) in the boiling water until just tender, about 10 minutes. Drain well and then add to the pot with the sauce. Raise the heat to medium-high and cook, stirring, until the pasta absorbs some of the sauce and becomes tender and the sauce thickens slightly, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve sprinkled with more Parmigiano.