Rigatoni and Cauliflower al Forno

If you say cauliflower, you will have my attention. I came to cauliflower late in life but it has become one of my very favorite things. And I am always looking for new ways to prepare it. So when I saw this recipe in the New York Times, I was interested but my interest waned a bit as soon as I saw the word “capers”. Ugh.

Now, I don’t hate capers but capers just don’t do it for me. Usually, they are one small note in a larger profile so I am fine to have them linger in the background. But with a dish like this, the few ingredients are usually all essential elements. Take one out and the whole dish falters. So, how do I lose the capers and keep the basic flavor profile intact? I decided to double the amount of lemon zest and add a teaspoon of white wine vinegar. I also decreased the amount of cheese. Not to make up for the absence of capers. I just didn’t want that much cheese. I was aiming for light spring dish, not fortifying winter put-a-brick-of-cheese-in-me dish.

The resulting dish will definitely be coming back into my rotation. Very light and flavorful but it is the great textures at work here that really make it sing. Some noodles are soft and some are all crackled and crunchy. There are toasty bread crumbs and I am glad that the cauliflower does not get overcooked. And bonus! It actually reheats nicely in the microwave. I drizzled a little olive oil in the leftovers and stuck them in the microwave for a few minutes and all the textures were still working. That doesn’t always happen so I’m really pleased when it does.

Rigatoni and Cauliflower al Forno
(Adapted from the New York Times)

  • 1 pound rigatoni
  • 1 medium cauliflower, about 1 1/2 pounds
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon capers, coarsely chopped (extremely optional)
  • 1 teaspoon crushed garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 3 tablespoons roughly chopped sage, plus a few sage leaves left whole
  • 1 teaspoon lemon zest*
  • ounces coarsely grated or finely cubed fontina**
  • 2 ounces finely grated Romano cheese
  • ½ cup coarse dry bread crumbs
  • 2 tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

Cook the rigatoni in well-salted water according to package directions, but drain while still quite al dente. Rinse pasta with cool water, then drain again and set aside.

Heat oven to 400 degrees. Cut cauliflower in half from top to bottom. Cut out tough core and stem any extraneous leaves. Lay cauliflower flat side down and cut crosswise into rough 1/4-inch slices. Break into smaller pieces.

Put 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil in a wide skillet over high heat. Add cauliflower slices, along with any crumbly pieces, in a single layer. You will need to do this in batches. Let cauliflower brown and caramelize for about 2 minutes, then turn pieces over to brown the other side. Cook for another 2 minutes. Set browned cauliflower aside in a large bowl and season generously with salt and pepper. Repeat with remaining batches of cauliflower. Add garlic, red pepper flakes, chopped sage, sage leaves and lemon zest to the bowl and stir to coat. (And yes, this is where you would add the capers if you were insistent upon doing such a thing.) Add cooked rigatoni and fontina and toss.

Transfer mixture to a lightly oiled 9×13 baking dish. Top with Romano cheese, then with bread crumbs and drizzle with about 1 tablespoon olive oil.

Bake, uncovered, for about 20 minutes, until top is crisp and golden. Sprinkle with freshly chopped parsley before serving.


* I never imagined that I would use my microplane as much as I do. In fact, I use it so much that I have two of them and they are both always in the dishwasher. I am constantly using it to zest fruit and finely grate hard cheeses. It is just so frigging handy. (Also, fun fact, it was originally designed as a woodworking tool before it got appropriated for kitchen use. I really want to meet the person who first saw someone doing detail work on a table leg and had the idea to take that tool and use it on fruit.)

** I actually find that the texture of fontina does not lend itself to grating. It is a little too pliable. I usually take the wedge of fontina, cut it into slices and then further chop those into little cubes. Much easier and cleaner than grating it and it melts nice and evenly that way.


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