Years ago, when I lived in New York City, the first time I went to the restaurant Lupa, on the menu was pasta with spicy cauliflower ragù. I was intrigued, so I ordered it, and I loved it. It was earthy, piquant, rich and creamy, with little bits of very tender cauliflower. Next time I was there,
ordered it, loved it. Then it was off the menu the times I returned, and I moved to the opposite coast.
I kept thinking about it and remembering it fondly, though, so imagine my delight when I paged
through Melissa Clark's cookbook "Chef, Interrupted" and found it there, with notes from Lupa's chef, Mark Ladner. No cream, after all; instead, the creaminess comes from lots of butter and cheese. (Ladner explains that it should be plenty rich!) In the book, the ragù is paired with farro, but I wanted it the way I had had it at Lupa, so I paired it with pasta. A short shape that will catch the bits of sauce works well. I found the cauliflower part can be cooked ahead, refrigerated, and reheated gently (with a bit of water if needed), then the pasta and the rest added to finish.
I won't be making all the time because of the amount of butter and cheese, but I'm glad to know I can still have the dish I've thought about when I want it.
Pasta with Spicy Cauliflower Ragù
(adapted from Chef, Interrupted by Melissa Clark)
1 head cauliflower
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
1 1/2 cups water, divided
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1 pound penne or shells
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 ounces Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
3 ounces Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
Remove the green leaves from the cauliflower, and separate it into florets. Cut the stems off the
florets and slice them thinly. Coarsely chop the florets and reserve them separately.
Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan or wide saucepan with a lid, and add the onion and the
cauliflower stems and some salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions and cauliflower are golden, around 15 minutes. Turn the heat to low, add 1/2 cup water, scrape up any browned bits, and simmer for 15 minutes, adding a bit of water if it dries out in the pan.
Add the chopped califlower florets, rosemary, red pepper flakes, and 1 cup water, plus some black
pepper and more salt if you wish (keeping in mind that you will be adding lots of salty cheese
later). Cover the pan and cook, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes, or until the cauliflower is
very tender and the florets have fallen apart further.
While the ragù finishes cooking, cook the pasta in salted water until al dente and drain, reserving 1 cup pasta cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan with the ragù, along with about two-thirds of the reserved cooking water and the butter. Stir gently, still over low heat, until the butter melts and is incorporated. Take the pot off the heat and add both cheeses, stirring until they melt into the sauce, adding a bit more pasts water to loosen if needed, and serve at once.