Pasta on a Wing and a Dare

romanesco cauliflowerOkay. This may be a bit daring, but I am going to show my true colors here. A lot of people will take issue with what I am about to say. But if I learned anything from MILK (the major motion picture not the dairy product) it is this: Every person must come out and declare who they really are.

Well I am a finicky bastard who likes things a certain way. I don’t believe in shortcuts, instant mashed potatoes or Segways. I like to take my time when I am cooking. I look for recipes that will challenge me. I enjoy the pre-planning, and the anticipation of my meal. When I read or hear other cooks go on and on about how easy it is. I think to myself maybe you just didn’t try hard enough.

That (cheekily) said, I also realize that liking something a particular way or always wanting something you truly enjoy is occasionally not feasible. Like Patsy Cline (may have) said, “people in Hell want ice-water…that don’t mean they get it”. 

I wish I had hours every day to plan and prepare scrumptious food. It would be nice if I could devote entire afternoons towards hunting down the perfect ingredients. Bought fresh everyday, with a specific purpose in mind. But if that were my reality then Oprah’s ratings would plummet. Dr. Phil would be canceled. Days of Our Lives would cease to exist, and Chris Matthews would miss me (terribly).

No I have an agenda, a schedule. I have things I need to accomplish on any given day.  I mean who is going to stop and smell the roses if not me? 

Plus there is all that other crap involved with earning a living, running a household, staying (somewhat) fit, and keeping the people you love happy. My inbox is filled with people I love.

So sometimes, (I can’t believe I am saying this out-loud) I make “whatever” for dinner. I use all extra the “stuff” laying around my house, and I â€œwing it”.

This does not have to a horrific experience either. I mean I tend to have decent, if not downright interesting, things in my refrigerator.

So this week I had a pretty hefty amount of cauliflower laying around my house. I had done a Market Matters post last week using this veggie. So there was still plenty left.  In my experimenting, I bought the white variety, the purple variety, and the pretty green conical variety known as Romanesco [roh-mah-NEHS-koh] cauliflower. The little green guy seemed like a good inspiration for me. So why not “wing it” with him?

When I â€œwing it “ on a weeknight, you can be pretty sure that there is a pasta dish at the end of my rainbow.

I feel confident about making pasta. I am pretty good at pairing a few simple ingredients in flavorful ways. My motto is “don’t junk it up”. This is pretty much the only requirement for pasta in my book. 

Well, you also need very good pasta.

I prefer dried pasta to fresh pasta 9 out of 10 times. Fresh pasta has its place in our world. So please do not misunderstand me. Put the pens down and step away from the keyboard. I don’t need another server crash on my email account. Because all I am saying is the difference between dried and fresh pasta is pretty substantial. You can’t feel threatened by that. Can you?

Fresh pasta is made with wheat that is lower in protein and gluten content. Bakers tend to like flour from this soft wheat for batter-based foods like cakes and biscuits. Think cake flour.

Fresh pasta always has eggs in it and it has a soft, silky texture. If you ever get the opportunity to run your fingers through my hair, I think you’ll understand what I am talking about. It’s a very definable experience.

But dried pasta is another creature entirely. No matter the technique, you cannot simply take fresh pasta and dry it in some manner and feel like you have achieved a â€œdried pasta”. You’ll end up with something a bit more “crackery” in texture. There are recipes I have read from the Puglia region of Italy that employ this drying technique, so never say never. But do not call it a â€œdried pasta”.
Dried pasta is made with hard wheat and water. The very best ones have nothing else at all in them. So check the label.  Once dried pastas are cooked up (properly) they have a distinctive chewy texture, with a definite “bite” to it. This “bite” is what an excellent pasta dish needs to be that completely fulfilling culinary moment we so savor.

I could go on and on here about dried pasta. But I won’t. I am planning a whole post on the subject and I don’t want to use up all my best quips.

Suffice to say. When I â€œwing it” and make a â€œquick” pasta “off the cuff”; I always use dried pasta.

For my Penne with Pancetta and Romanesco Cauliflower, I am using penne, pancetta and Romanesco cauliflower.  Does that sound redundant? Do I need an editor?

Now pasta making (the sauce not the noodle—oh God forgive me did I call it a noodle?) is a very personal experience. So put on music you like. Wear something sexy. Have a glass of red wine. Whatever you need to get yourself in the “mood”. The mood to create!

romenesco cauliflower crumbledI started by slicing the florets off the cauliflower stem. About half of the larger sized florets I sliced into 1/8 inch thick pieces. They will break apart a bit producing some crumbly bits as well as nice neat slices. This is a good thing and will add to that textural variety you are looking for.

Mix all the cauliflower together in a small bowl and set it aside. 

pancettaHeat a good-sized sauté pan over medium heat and add 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Add about 1 cup of pancetta pieces cut into 1’ X 1/4” batons. Cook them 5 or 6 minutes until they render some fat. Don’t let them get too brown just yet.

Add about 1 1/2 cups onion diced pretty chunky.  Cook the onion and the pancetta 2 more minutes.

adding onions to pancettaWhile the onions soften and begin to cook, roughly chop up about 1/4 cup of well rinsed capers. Add these to the pancetta/onion mix and combine well. As an aside I love fried capers!

Turn the heat up to medium-high. When the pan gets hot it’s time to put the cauliflower into the pan. Add about half of it. Remember your goal is lots of interesting texture from the vegetables.

caulflower with pancettaAt this point be patient. Don’t stir the mixture around too much. Remember you want crisp and chewy textures. If you give the pan too much love, you’ll end up with a steamed mess of mushy yuck. But once some of the vegetables begin to get randomly brown and crispy in a few areas you can give the pan a toss. Or a quick stir. Add the rest of the veggies and repeat the process. This way the texture really will run the gamut from crispy little bits, to soft luscious chunks.

pasta with cauliflower and pancettaNow add about 1 cup of chicken broth to the pan and a good amount of red pepper flakes. I’ll say about a teaspoon. But usually I add more. But you have not been tested, and I don’t want a lawsuit. Season this to your liking is a safe phrase I suppose. Safe phrases. Am I reduced to that?

I hope you have gotten the penne cooked while we were preparing the sauce. Cause we are ready for it. Once it is perfectly al dente (another day, another post) use a large wire skimmer and drop it directly into the sauté pan. Some water will come along and that is just fine. In fact it’s what we are going for. Bring the sauce and penne to a boil, tossing and stirring to coat the pasta.

Check your seasoning. Stir in about 1/2 of the breadcrumbs, the parsley, and another 2 tablespoons olive oil in the pot.  Cook, stirring and tossing the pasta, until the sauce is lightly thickened.

Pour the pasta out onto a serving platter. Garnish with the last of the breadcrumbs and another big dizzle of olive oil and serve it up! Dare ya!

Like this story? Then say it: Gustoso!

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Greg Henry