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Cauliflower Pasta: Meatless Monday

12/05/2011 08:31 am ET | Updated Feb 04, 2012

When I write the words season to taste in a recipe, I'm not doing it for my own pleasure. I'm doing it for yours. I care about your pleasure because one of the most radical take-back-the-planet-and-your life things you can do is prepare your own meatless meals. But nobody will, unless it's easy and tastes good.

Eating is an intimate act. A recipe is a guideline, a template, but only you know how much seasoning you like in any given dish. Or, what I fear is, you don't know. We've lost the everyday art of cooking, and worse, we've lost the ability to taste our food. We have become estranged from our own tastebuds.

I blame industrialized food on both counts. It's given us an alternative to preparing our own food, but oy, what an alternative. It encourages industrialized, mindless eating by pumping out the processed eats that are such a big, fat part of the American diet. That salty/fatty/sweet flavor combination we love? Food manufacturers love it, too, because it turns consumers into eating machines who don't question what the food is doing to us or the environment. It turns us into junkies. Junkies are not good decision makers. Or rather, they're good at deciding all they want is more junk, so you eat more pepperoni pizza, even though it's the carbon equivalent of driving your car for 5 weeks and contributes to America's favorite triple-threat of obesity, diabetes and heart disease. Even the USDA suggests we walk away from processed food and meat and bump up whole grains, beans, fruits and vegetables.

Great idea, but if you're hard-wired for pepperoni pizza and other mega-flavored processed foods, fresh cauliflower is a hard sell. That's why so many chefs are smitten with what's seasonal. It's the no-brainer natural way to impart big flavors -- they're already there in the food. The bright, green flavors of spring's fresh baby produce are best enjoyed in their pristine naked form or teased out with the first herbs of spring. If only the hearty vegetables of winter got spring produce's great pr. They should. Like all produce that grows in the here and now, they offer the fullest flavor and life force.

Armed with a little seasonal produce, fifteen minutes and a few other cheap ingredients you probably have on hand, you can fight industrial evil, enlighten yourself and create a meal that puts pepperoni pizza in the shade.

Cooking, as with so much of life, is all about timing. Flavors and textures develop as you cook, so have a taste here and there. Tasting as you go means you know just at what point a dish is right to you.

I like to add spices early in the cooking to infuse the food, while fresh herbs enhance a dish when you add them towards the end -- their flavors and colors stay bright. Salting during the cooking process means the sodium absorbs into the food -- and you -- and gets lost on the way to you palate. I prefer to salt food right before serving, when just a little adds a pop of flavor. Give it a try it and see what works best for you. You'll have dinner, and you and your tastebuds can get to know each other again.

You don't need to have your own cable network cooking show to put a great meal together, you don't need a sous vide. You just how to know what you like.

Cauliflower Pasta

Rediscover cauliflower. It's in season now and it's not all tasteless and white. There's lots of heirloom varieties in a rainbow of colors, like the orange one I got at my farmers market. But even your standard white cauliflower works in this recipe, where the vegetable becomes the sauce.

1 cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil*
5 cloves garlic, chopped
1 generous pinch red pepper flakes (how generous is up to you -- season to taste, remember?)
1/2 cup white wine
12 ounces whole wheat penne
handful fresh chopped parsley
sea salt to taste

Steam cauliflower for 20 minutes or until it's snowy and falling apart.

Heat olive oil in a large pot. Add chopped garlic and red pepper flakes. Stir for about 4 minutes, until pepper flakes sizzle and garlic is golden and fragrant. Add steamed cauliflower and mash the whole business. Add the wine and stir to combine, creating a thick, blankety sauce. Season with sea salt.

You can puree it into silkiness with an immersion blender or with a food processor, but to me, a rustic imperfection is part of its charm. Either way, it's delicious.

Make pasta according to package directions. Toss with cauliflower sauce and cook over medium heat until heated through, five minutes tops. Top with chopped parsley. And, you know, season to taste.

*Note to nonvegans. You can substitute butter for the olive oil, which makes things quite luscious indeed. Top with fresh grated Parmesan.

Serves 4.