Sunday, October 29, 2017

Crusty Baked Shells & Cauliflower

Mom and I went to the County Fair every summer. I was going for the rides, the animals, and the food. She was going for my sake, but also because a basket of fried veggies was one of her favorite things to eat. Back in the day we were very healthy eaters, so these battered and fried veggies were a big treat for both of us. The basket would come out piping hot and brimming with golden puffy clouds of broccoli, mushrooms, onions, zucchini, and cauliflower. She loved them all, but she loved the mushrooms best. This worked in her favor since I didn't like mushrooms. The onions and cauliflower were always my favorites. Together we would eat the basket clean.

A few weeks ago I went to a street fair and there were rows upon rows of food trucks. There were endless things to eat, but I only had one thing in mind: fried veggies.  Problem was, I looked high and low and no one seemed to be selling them. Determined, I walked around in the hot sun for what felt like ages. Finally I find a place and my eyes lit up. I went ahead and ordered the big basket, even though no one would share them with me.

Even though I had to hold back tears, I did manage to thoroughly enjoy those fried veggies. To me they will always be the best thing to eat at the fair. The onion is still up there as one of my favorites, but it's the fried cauliflower that's my favorite. I love all the craggy fried edges and how the cauliflower starts to go all creamy inside. It's just so darn good! The whole thing got me thinking...why don't I cook with cauliflower more often?

I vowed then and there to buy some cauliflower and find a good recipe. While looking through Ina Garten's latest cookbook, Cooking For Jeffrey, I found this recipe for Crusty Baked Shells & Cauliflower and it was perfect!

This baked pasta dish is delightfully different. First of all, there is no cheese sauce, but there is plenty of cheese: creamy Fontina, fluffy ricotta, and nutty Pecorino. These three cheeses may very well be the foundation of this dish, but it's the brightness of the lemon zest and the pop of the capers that are front and center. Of course, I'd be remiss if I didn't give mention to the real star of the dish, the crusty panko topping. The topping is a textural delight, with crusty bits of panko, pasta, and cauliflower. Oh, and I nearly forgot to mention the fiery heat of the red pepper flakes! I really loved this. It was just plain fun to eat! While it may not be for everyone (a quick poll taught me that not everyone loves cauliflower), I will say that I found it absolutely delightful! I can understand why Ina says it is wildly popular. It is creamy and crusty, comforting yet bright, mild yet fiery and everything else in between. My favorite bites were the ones with the crusty bits from the top and the pasta shells that had capers tucked into them. So tasty, so unique!

Pasta and cauliflower mixed with lemon zest, capers, sage, garlic, Fontina, red pepper flakes, salt, and pepper

 If you love the ingredients in this one I urge you to give this a try! It is definitely one of those dishes that shakes things up a bit!

Crusty Baked Shells & Cauliflower
Adapted from Cooking For Jeffrey
by Ina Garten
Serves 6-8

Ina says, "When I met David Tanis in Paris, he was the head chef at Alice Water's legendary restaurant Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. David now writes cookbooks andmy favorite food column in the New York Times. This wildly popular recipe is from his column. I love the creamy cauliflower with the crisp pasta plus sage, capers, garlic, and Fontina."

Before the topping was scattered on

3/4 pound medium shells
good olive oil
salt and pepper, to taste
2-1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into small florets (1 large head)
3 tablespoons roughly chopped fresh sage leaves
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 tablespoon minced garlic (3 cloves)
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 cups freshly grated Fontina cheese (10 ounces with rind)
1 cup (8 ounces fresh ricotta)
1/2 cup panko
6 tablespoons freshly grated Pecorino cheese
2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Fill a large pot with water, add 2 tablespoons salt, and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook al dente, according to the instructions on the package. Since it will be baked later, don't overcook it! Drain and pour into a very large bowl.

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a large (12-inch) saute pan over medium-high heat, add half the cauliflower in one layer, and saute for 5 to 6 minutes, tossing occasionally, until the florets are lightly browned and tender. Pour the cauliflower, including the small bits, into the bowl with the pasta. Add 3 more tablespoons of oil to the saute pan, add the remaining cauliflower, cook until browned and tender, and add to the bowl. 

Add the sage, capers, garlic, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon black pepper to the bowl and stir carefully. Stir in the Fontina. Transfer half of the mixture to a 10 x 13 x 2-inch rectangular baking dish (or cast iron skillet). Spoon rounded tablespoons of ricotta on the pasta and spoon the remaining pasta mixture on top. Combine the panko, Pecorino, parsley, and 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a small bowl and sprinkle it evenly on top. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until browned  and crusty on top. Serve hot!


  1. This looks delicious. We love pasta and cheese. And you are right, I don't cook with cauliflower much but I should. I am going to book mark this one. Food and family really go together. Hugs:)

  2. Cauliflower is one of my favorites too! I love the memories you share about your mom, it's good you gave such great ones of her and your childhood.
    Nice choice for potluck!

  3. I love cauliflower. In fact I just bought two huge ones, one white, one green. I can't pass them up; they were very inexpensive at this time of the year. This looks like a must-make dish with the cauliflower. The food story at the fair is very touching. Take care, Kim!

  4. Ooh the capers and cauliflower combo totally does it for me. Definitely a winner of a pasta dinner!

  5. This looks delicious Kim! I love cauliflower!
    I love reading about the beautiful memory you had with your mother. Those are special moments to be cherished and treasured.


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