Her recipe further encourages you to interact with the process of sautéing the cauliflower by adding other ingredients at appropriate intervals to obtain a specific effect. The goal is a mass of cauliflower that includes tender pieces of cauliflower and crisp chewy bits of cauliflower and capers—the whole of which is infused with the salty and aromatic flavors of garlic, fennel spice, red pepper flakes, anchovies, olives and parsley. If the small bits of cauliflower and capers were added at the beginning, they would likely burn...so they are added after the initial browning of the larger pieces of cauliflower. Finally, the garlic, spices and anchovies only need a brief cooking in the oil (at a slightly reduced temperature so the garlic won't burn) to infuse the dish with their fragrance, so they are added after the browning is accomplished and the cauliflower is mostly finished cooking. The olives and parsley (which I didn't have) are added during the last minute over the flame, since they don't need any cooking at all.
At the end of the cooking process Rogers encourages you to taste the cauliflower to make sure that all of the ingredients are in balance—that one isn't shouting louder than all of the others. This last time when I tasted the final dish, it seemed that the salty ingredients (capers, anchovies, olives) were screaming for attention. I wanted to bring out a little more sweetness. The original dish gets a bit of sweetness from the fennel spice and the crunchy toasted bread crumb topping. I had already incorporated a few pine nuts (added with the olives) which helped, but still wanted something more. I ended up adding a few dried currants which added sweetness as well as a chewy textural element. I was very pleased with this addition. At other times, you might feel that the dish needs a bit of acidity—a squeeze of lemon might bring it into balance. It may need more anchovy or fennel. The point is to taste...consider...and adjust.
As a final note, Rogers recipe calls for a 12-inch sauté pan. What you actually need is a sauté pan with a flat cooking surface of at least 12 inches. Such a pan would be sold as a 14-inch pan—or larger—as measured from rim to rim. I used a "12-inch" pan (with a cooking surface of about 8 to 9 inches) for half of the recipe. I didn't know all of these measurement details until I got out a ruler and measured all of my pans and then checked at Chef's Catalog to see how they are labeled and sold. I didn't think about all of this when I was sautéing the cauliflower. I just pulled out a pan to use that looked like the right size for the amount of cauliflower I was going to be sautéing (which is what you should be doing anyway). I guess I'm sharing all of this because if you went with her suggestion of a "12-inch" pan (as labeled by the manufacturer) you would be cooking in a pan that is too small and you wouldn't get caramelized cauliflower—you would get oily, steamed cauliflower. Also, Rogers suggests a temperature of medium for the sautéing. My stove doesn't have enough power to maintain the active, gentle sizzle called for at that heat...yours might not either. My stove required medium-high heat. You need to get to know your stove. As always, look to the recipe for cues about what should be going on in the pan and adjust the specifics of the recipe to obtain the desired result.
Without the pasta, this sautéed cauliflower would make a fine side dish—with some or all of the added elements. The cauliflower would also be nice dressed with just salsa verde. Either way, it would be particularly good as an accompaniment to fish or seafood. But I enjoy it most on pasta—so much that it is definitely worth going out and purchasing a nice head of cauliflower with the specific purpose in mind of making this for dinner.
Pasta with Spicy Sautéed Cauliflower
1 head of cauliflower (about 1 1/2 to 2 lbs), cored
1/2 to 3/4 c. Olive Oil
heaping T. capers, rinsed, pressed between paper towels to remove excess moisture and coarsely chopped
1 lb. Rigatoni, Penne, Fusilli, Orecchiette or Farfalle
4 to 6 anchovies, chopped
4 medium or 6 small cloves garlic, chopped
heaping ½ t. fennel seed, crushed with a mortar & pestle
1/4 t. red pepper flakes
1/3 c. coarsely chopped black olives
1/4 c. toasted pine nuts
2 T. currants, plumped and drained if very dry
Salt & Pepper, to taste
½ c. toasted breadcrumbs
Halve the cauliflower and lay each half cut side down on the cutting board. Slice each half in 1/8- to scant 1/4-inch thick slices. You will have slices of varying size cross-sections and small bits of floret when you are done.
Warm 3 to 4 T. olive oil in a large sauté pan (the pan should be large enough to hold the cauliflower in a shallow layer—if it is piled to high it will steam rather than sauté) over medium to medium-high heat. Add all the slices of cauliflower to the pan, for the moment leaving the smaller bits behind on the cutting board. The cauliflower should sizzle gently in the pan.
Allow it to cook undisturbed until the edges are beginning to brown—about 3 minutes or so. Add the capers, the remaining bits of cauliflower and a light sprinkle of salt and give the contents of the pan a toss or two (or stir and fold) to redistribute the cauliflower in the pan. If the pan seems dry, drizzle in a bit more oil. Continue to cook, tossing or stirring only as the bits and edges of the cauliflower take on color (the amount of stirring will probably less than you are inclined to do).
Meanwhile, at the point when the capers and bits of cauliflower are added to the pan, drop the pasta into a large pot of rapidly boiling, salted water. Cook until al dente.
When the cauliflower has reduced in volume by about one third, all but the stems of the cauliflower are tender, and the capers and cauliflower crumbs have become golden, chewy bits, reduce the heat and add the anchovies, garlic, fennel and pepper flakes. Toss to distribute. Drizzle in more oil if the pan seems dry. Continue to cook until fragrant (a few more minutes) then toss in the olives, pine nuts and currants. Taste and correct the seasoning—striving to achieve balance. Set aside until the pasta is ready.
When the pasta is al dente, drain, reserving some of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the sautéed cauliflower. Toss to combine, adding some of the pasta water if it seems dry, or a drizzle of oil.
Serve topped with toasted breadcrumbs if you like. Serves 4 to 6.
Note: The original recipe doesn't include pine nuts or currants. A tablespoon of chopped Italian Flat-leaf parsley is added with the olives. Also, the original recipe uses half broccoli and half cauliflower.
(Recipe adapted from The Zuni Café Cookbook by Judy Rogers)