Pasta with Cauliflower, Walnuts, and Feta

For a couple of months now I’ve been fiddling with a recipe for pasta with cauliflower, walnuts, and feta that I came across at Smitten Kitchen. Deb, that site’s cook and author, had initially found it in Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse Vegetables.

It almost seems like a dish born of necessity — as if Alice Waters, in the midst of a snow storm, had opened the refrigerator to find a head of cauliflower and some feta, pulled the last walnuts and some pasta from her pantry, and  made a meal of it. Of course, Waters lives in Berkeley, California, where it doesn’t snow, and even in a storm her kitchen would surely be well-stocked. In any case, The Professor and my preschooler both like pasta, cauliflower, walnuts, and cheese, so I figured it was worth a try.

And indeed, The Professor never failed the dish. Though he has, shall we say, offered constructive criticism.

First, the recipe calls for whole wheat pasta, which he just couldn’t get behind. The next time I made it with white pasta, which was, all agreed, too bland. Most recently I made it with a fresh cilantro lime pasta. The quality of the pasta matters a lot in a vegetarian pasta dish, we decided, and the high-quality fresh fettuccine definitely improved the meal. But any cilantro-ness just disappeared into the sauce.

Yes, the sauce. That was the second big change. I decided we needed something to bind the ingredients together. So I whirled some some feta, walnuts, and a touch of olive oil in the food processor; and tossed that with the pasta before adding the cauliflower, onion, and walnut mixture. The Professor liked the sauce.

“Even if you take a bite of pasta alone, without the cauliflower and other stuff, it doesn’t taste bland,” he said. “I’d like even more of it next time.”

He continued the critique with a few more suggestions. First, the dish needed some heat — and, indeed, The Cook had forgotten to add the red pepper flakes. Second, it needed some color: “Thin strips of jalapeno, which would add spice and color?” he offered. “Or chopped parsley?” And, finally, although it hurts to type it: “The cauliflower itself didn’t have much flavor. Some spots were nicely caramelized. But maybe you could cook the florets with some spices.”

I ignored the comment about the cauliflower. I had to. I’d been working on this dish for months. I’d been trying to perfect roasted cauliflower for more than a year. I’d served The Professor cauliflower in myriad forms over our years together and now … now he was suggesting that the cauliflower tasted too much like, well, cauliflower?!

Instead, I heard “heat” and “green.” And next time he’ll get that. Although I may wait until autumn — peak cauliflower season. I think The Professor needs a  break.



3 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Claudine,

    When I make a similar dish (minus the feta), I toss in a small handful of slivered green olives at the end. The color, sour bite, and texture make for a nice contrast with the rest of the dish.

  2. Julia E,

    I’ve just discovered your blog and love the premise! I’m a (white, southern-born) vegan partnered up with a meat-eating (bad) Hindu. Go figure…

    I love Smitten Kitchen’s blog and noticed this recipe you made. I make a dish similar to this one, but I use orecchiette (easy to make at home) with pan-roasted cauliflower and broccoli as well as caramelized onions, garlic, pine nuts, capers, a squeeze of lemon, plenty of sea salt and black pepper, etc. I just use a tiny bit of the pasta water to bind everything together. Then I top it off with chopped flat-leaf parsley, and the bad Hindu puts parmesan cheese on top.

    If you cut the entire heads of broccoli and cauliflower into flat slices rather than branching it off into little trees, it pan-roasts a lot more evenly and becomes that much more delicious because it gets caramelized-ish (real word!) all over.

    I like the idea of a bit of chili in a dish like this. Have to try that next time! Maybe birds eye rather than jalapeno? Saw a recipe for candied jalapenos just the other day. Need to try that, too!

    We LOVE roasted cauliflower, and I often roast it at a high temperature in the oven with Indian spices. (I recommend lining the baking tray with parchment paper for very easy clean-up!) Just toss florets in a bowl with olive oil, sea salt, black pepper, cumin, fennel seeds, mustard seeds. You can add chili to this as well, but the bad Hindu hates spice. (Once again, go figure…) If you’re feeling festive, throw some garlic cloves and raw cashews in to roast with the cauliflower. You can also throw in some fresh chopped cilantro at the end. You can serve it with raitha if you feel like you need a dipping sauce, but we rarely do that. We just sit there and eat it off the tray before it even makes it into serving bowls. We’re heathens…

    • Julia — Welcome! And forgive my long silence. It’s been a busy month … Next time I make the cauliflower dish I’ll try adding the pasta water to bind it together and the parsley as well. And your Indian-spiced cauliflower recipe sounds divine. — Jess

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