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.