It started with a carrot that had gone on in its second year to make a beautiful lacy umbel of a flower. I was enchanted and began to notice other lacy flowers in my garden that looked similar—parsley, fennel, cilantro, anise, as well as Queen Anne’s lace on a roadside—they are all members of the same plant family, as it turned out. Similarly, small daisy-like flowers, whether blue, yellow, orange, enormous or very small, bloomed on lettuce that had gone to seed as well as on wild chicories, the Jerusalem artichokes, and, of course, the sunflowers themselves. Were they related? They were, it turns out. And did edible members of this group somehow share culinary characteristics as well? Often they did. That led me to ask, What are the plant families that provide us with the vegetables we eat often, what characteristics do their members share, and what are their stories?
Cauliflower with Saffron, Pepper Flakes, Plenty of Parsley, and Pasta
I love this approach to cauliflower. In fact, I’d say it’s my favorite way to cook it. It’s golden, aromatic, and lively in the mouth. It’s good alone and very good spooned over pasta shells, which catch the smaller bits of the vegetable. Even a small cauliflower can be surprisingly dense, weighing a pound and yielding 4 cups florets.
1 cauliflower (about 11/2 pounds), broken into small florets, the core diced
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for tossing the pasta
1 onion, finely diced
2 pinches of saffron threads
1 large clove garlic, minced
Scant 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
4 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
8 ounces pasta shells, snails or other shapes
Grated aged cheese or crumbled feta cheese (optional)
Steam the cauliflower florets and core over boiling water for about 3 minutes. Taste a piece. It should be on the verge of tenderness and not quite fully cooked. Set it aside.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil for the pasta.
Heat the oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and saffron and cook, stirring frequently, until the onion is soft, 6 minutes or so. The steam will activate the saffron so that it stains and flavors the onion. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and a few pinches of the parsley, give them a stir, and then add the cauliflower. Toss the cauliflower to coat it with the seasonings, add 1/2 cup water, and cook over medium heat until the cauliflower is tender, just a few minutes. Season with salt, toss with half of the remaining parsley, and keep warm.
While the cauliflower is cooking, cook the pasta in the boiling water seasoned with salt until al dente. Drain, transfer to a warmed bowl, and toss with a few tablespoons of oil and the remaining parsley. Taste for salt, then spoon the cauliflower over the pasta, wiggle some of it into the pasta crevices, grate the cheese on top, and serve.
With Shrimp: When wild Gulf shrimp are in season, take advantage of their sweet goodness. Peel 1 pound shrimp, then sauté them over high heat in olive oil until pink and firm, after 5 minutes or so. Toss them with chopped garlic and parsley and divide them among the individual pasta plates or heap them over the top of the communal dish. Omit the cheese.