Boy, that was one big cauliflower Jackie and I hauled back from the farmers' market a couple of weeks ago. We ate about 50 percent of it as a gratin -- let's call it cauliflower and cheese; with just bread and butter, it was a more than satisfying dinner. Then another quarter found its way into a second gratin, this one a side-dish that served three people. This left us with plenty more uncooked cauliflower in the fridge. And we let it sit there for a few days before the tail end of a loaf of bread made me think of crispy crumbs: big enough to be really crunchy, but not so big that they'd qualify as croutons.
And, while it possesses a lovely and particular texture, cauliflower sometimes benefits from some crunch. So does just about any dish of dried pasta with vegetables, and that intersection determined the fate of the last of the cauliflower. It also determined the way I would cut the vegetable: into small bits that would fit on a spoon leaving room for a piece of pasta and some crumbs.
As a base for the condiment (to use Mario Batali's useful word for pasta dressings that are not really sauces), I sweated a couple of sliced shallots in olive oil with some salt and a little chopped rosemary (sage would be lovely too). When they were tender, I added about two tablespoons of slivered speck (prosciutto of any kind would be fine, but speck is what I always keep in the fridge; a vegetarian option would be to double the shallots and cook them until brown) and continued to cook for less than a minute. Meanwhile, I toasted/fried crustless tired baguette broken up in the food processor into about a cup of crumbs that ran from an eighth to a quarter of an inch in size: in a skillet with olive oil and a whole peeled clove of garlic over low heat so that it would get crisp throughout. I set these elements aside and turned to the final quarter of my cauliflower, which I cut and broke by hand into mini-florets; I'd been tempted to break the thing up by whacking it with a mallet, but that would have been as stupid as it sounds.
Cauliflower is typically left quite white in the cooking, but some of the great cauliflower dishes (such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's sea scallops with caramelized cauliflower and caper-raisin emulsion) involve light browning. So did our dinner: I salted it and cooked in a skillet just slicked with olive oil over medium heat. By the time it had begun to brown, it was pretty much cooked, so I turned off the fire and boiled 150 grams -- just over five ounces, plenty for two with all the vegetables and what not - of a pretty pasta shape called Vesuvio: it spirals into a cone, sort of like soft-serve ice cream -- or indeed like a Neapolitan volcano.
As it cooked, I rekindled the fire under the skillet and added the shallot-speck mixture to the cauliflower, along with more chopped fresh rosemary (not too much), and when the pasta was done I drained it and stirred it in to the condiment in the skillet, checking for seasoning. Finally, I stirred in the crunchy fragments of bread. If the result had been too dry, I'd have added a little of the salty pasta-cooking water, but the shallots and oil kept everything as lubricated as they needed to be -- and I wanted to keep those breadcrumbs crisp.
At the table, we sprinkled a little grated parmesan on a test spoonful of pasta, but it conferred no benefit on an already flavorful dish; if anything, it masked the cauliflower. And that would have defeated the purpose: Remember, this whole enterprise began with a bowling-ball-sized cauliflower.
The dish has several kinds of non-sugary sweetnesses: from the shallot, from the ham and even from the cauliflower itself, but it also has a light funkiness from those last two ingredients. Delicious, and worth doing even if you're not stuck with cauliflower you don't have any other plans for.