Cauliflower is a funny thing. Many people claim to hate it and yet when it’s cooked properly I have yet to have anyone refuse to eat it. It’s available year-round nearly everywhere and it appears almost universally in the world’s cuisines. Even so, when I cook it, I get excited about it – maybe because it’s used in such distinctive dishes, like pasta cu vrùocculi.
It’s also fun to shop for – being available all year long is largely due to different cultivars being grown in different seasons. This means differences in taste, texture & color, the giant violettu (purple) in the spring being nuttier than the winter’s jancu (white). The light green vrùocculu i iardinu (garden cauliflower) appears at the first sign of fall and is indeed tastes a little grassy. Romanesco – not technically a cauliflower at all – is also popular and used interchangeably with cauliflower in most of Italy.
Of course, shopping for or reading about cauliflower in Sicily isn’t confusing AT ALL. In Sicilian, cauliflower is called vrùocculu. In Palermo. Mostly.
In some places it’s called sparaceddu, which in other places means broccoli, as does vrùocculu (????). Any of these words could apply to Romanesco, which is also called Roman broccoli or Roman cabbage, but of course Roman cabbage is also a type of cabbage. This extends to Sicilians speaking Italian too, using the words broccolo and the Italianized sparacello with the same level of confusion. Cavolfiore always means cauliflower, except when it refers to kale, or certain cabbages.
Let’s not even broach the topic of cavolo broccolo (broccoli-cabbage).
When I speak Sicilian, whatever that’s worth, I say vrùoccolu “VWROHK-koh-loo” for cauliflower and sparaceddu for broccoli (although I pronounce it with an invisible y, very common with the accent I have, “shpah-dah-CHYED-dooh”)
In Palermo specifically, and western Sicily generally, this dish is known as pasta cu vrùocculi ‘rriminati. The word ‘rriminati (from the infinitive ‘rriminari or arriminari) doesn’t have an exact cognate in English. It’s often translated as “stirred” or “mixed” and it does mean those things but the word also implies seasoning. In other words, it means to “mix with flavorings.”
I don’t want this blog – like much writing about Sicilian food– to give Palermitan cooking a disguised hegemony. While Sicilian cooking, like the language, is highly regional, a version of this would be recognizable throughout the island. As regional variations go, Trapani notably makes a tomato and pork-based ragù and deep fries its cauliflower to layer into a rich baked pasta with melted cheese and topped with almonds. In mountainous central Sicily you find a version where the cauliflower, after boiling, is pan-fried to a crispy crust (possibly along with bits of tuma, a soft cheese like mozzarella), mixed with pasta and seasoned with grated cheese. Other simpler versions abound, with sautéed garlic, with grated cheeses, with every imaginable variation.
At its most basic, however, the dish has two versions: a “white” (without tomato) version and a red version, typically made with strattu, Sicily’s sun-dried tomato paste (tomato paste that has been dried in the sun, not a paste made from sun-dried tomatoes). Strattu is just not widely available outside of Sicily but high-quality tomato paste does the job. Canned tomatoes and cherry tomatoes added to this make a nice dish (I have tried both), but it is a different dish than the one I am writing about today. For aesthetic (visual) reasons, you might use the red version for white cauliflower and save the white version for purple, green or orange cauliflower, but all cauliflowers taste good with either version of the dish.
NB: This dish is sometimes mistakenly referred to as pasta alla palina. While palina may contain cauliflower (it is not obligatory) the name itself implies the presence of cloves and other sweet spices (nutmeg, mace, etc). This may stem from the fact that we in the English-speaking world often want dishes to have defined names rather than descriptions, but in Sicilian cooking, this is the exception, not the rule. While many Palermitans definitively call the dish described below “‘rriminati” the same dish may simply be “pasta with cauliflower” in another household.
The choice of pasta is up to you. Bucatini are very traditional, but no less traditional than spaghetti. I personally much prefer this dish with long pasta but many people make it with short pasta. If short pasta is your thing, mezze maniche or cartwheels* trap bits of cauliflower, pine nut and raisin nicely.
*YES cartwheel pasta (ruote di carro) are a serious thing that adults eat and I love them! Just because your elementary school made them into macaroni and cheese is no reason to throw shade!
Coursing This is a hearty dish and while of course any pasta dish can precede another course of meat, fish or vegetables, this is a good candidate to precede a salad or lean grilled meat or fish (like red mullets or sea bass). At my house, a chunky pasta like this often precedes a salad (possibly a very Sicilian cooked salad) and maybe a piece of one or two different cheeses.
Drinking The white and red versions of the dish marry well to wines of the same color. Inzolia makes a viscous, floral white wine and a good one will have earthy almond notes that complement the cauliflower without clashing with the saffron. Blended with chardonnay, Inzolia makes a crisp, food-friendly wine – I am partial to Angimbé from Cusumano. It blends well with grillo too and Adènzia Bianco from Baglio del Christo del Campobello might be my top pick for this dish in bianco.
An elegant Nero d’Avola like Nerojbleo from Gulfi, or the everyday Planeta Rosso (blended with international grapes) would make music with the red version of the dish. If you prefer something mineral, a young Nerello Mascalese (the dominant grape in Etna Rosso) is a good foil for the vegetal taste of the cauliflower and the complexity of the raisins and pine nuts. The Faro from Bonavita is revelatory if you can find it, but any good Etna wine would do. The Ghaia Nera (black gravel) bottling from Tenuta Tascante (Tasca d’Almerita’s Etna property) is an excellent expression of the territory and the price-quality ratio is spot-on.
Donnafugata’s Vigna di Gabri is an intrepid Inzolia bottling, blended with international grapes, and that would stand up to either the red or white version of the dish.
But don’t forget that good wine goes with good food – you don’t need to think too hard about it or spend a lot of money. Cook, eat, drink and enjoy it.
Pasta with Cauliflower | Pasta cu vruòcculi ‘rriminati
Sicilian pasta with cauliflower, pine nuts and raisins, sprinkled with toasted breadcrumbs, red and white versions
- 1 smallish cauliflower or romanesco about 600g, if your cauliflower is too large for this recipe you can reserve the remaining cooked cauliflower to serve as a salad, or to bread or batter and fry as a main course.
- Sea salt as needed
For the Breadcrumb Topping
- 80 g fine dry breadcrumbs without any added seasonings about 2/3 cup
- Granulated sugar optional
- Extra virgin olive oil as needed
For the Sauce
- 1 quarter red or yellow onion, chopped about ½ cup or 80g
- 1 small dried hot chile pepper or pinch red pepper flake optional
- 3-4 anchovy filets, preferably salted anchovies cleaned and rinsed of all salt and bones or use those packed in oil
- 1 large pinch of saffron threads OR one envelope powdered saffron OR 1 heaping tablespoon strattu OR two heaping tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 tbsp pine nuts
- 4 tbsp raisins or dried currants soaked for ten minutes in warm water and drained
To Finish the Dish
- 350 g spaghetti or other pasta see introductory notes
Prepare the Cauliflower
Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil. The pot should have enough headroom to accommodate the whole cauliflower. The water should taste pleasantly salty, but not as salty as seawater.
Wash the cauliflower and cut away all but the smallest, tenderest leaves that are the palest green or white. Cut a slice off the bottom of the stem and cut a cross into it.
Put the cauliflower stem-side down in the pot of water, cover and bring back to a boil. Lower the heat to a simmer and cook until you can easily insert a fork into the stem of the cauliflower. Check the cauliflower after 16 minutes or so. It typically takes 18-20 minutes, or more for a larger cauliflower.
Cooking the cauliflower this way helps to avoid overcooking. If the pot is just a little too short but the cauliflower fits with the lid on it’s fine. If the pot is much too short you can cut the cauliflower into not-too-small florets but watch the cauliflower carefully to avoid overcooking. Cut florets will cook quickly, around 5-6 minutes, and will overcook easily.
Take the cauliflower out with a fork or slotted spoon and rest on a dinner plate to drain and cool. Reserve the cooking water.
When the cauliflower is cool enough to handle, break it with your hands or cut it into florets that are about the size of an unshelled almond. When you’re cooking the sauce later you want the cauliflower to break into small pieces but not mash. Cut away any fibrous parts of the stem, slice it and add it to the florets. Use the tender leaves as well.
Toast the breadcrumbs
While the cauliflower is cooling, pour the breadcrumbs into a frying pan. This is the same pan where you will eventually make the sauce. If you want to toss the pasta in the pan later, it should be at least 12”/30cm. Add a pinch of salt and a large pinch sugar (maybe a half teaspoon, if desired), and two or three tablespoons of olive oil, stirring with a fork until the mixture is grainy. Add more oil if needed – the mixture should resemble wet beach sand.
Place the pan over medium heat and stir constantly, or nearly, until the breadcrumbs turn the dark brown color of a filbert nut’s shell. (In Sicily they say they should be the color of “a monk’s habit” for those of you that hang around with monks…)
Immediately scrape the crumbs onto a dinner plate and set the hot pan aside.
Make the sauce
Wipe out the pan you toasted the breadcrumbs in and heat two or three tablespoons of oil in it over medium heat, enough to coat the bottom of the pan. Add the onion and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion becomes translucent. It should not brown. If it seems the onion is cooking too fast, lower the heat and/or add a spoonful of water.
In the meantime, add the saffron to a small bowl and cover with a ladleful of the hot cooking water from the cauliflower OR dissolve the strattu or tomato paste in the same way
When the onions are ready, lower the heat and add the anchovies. Carefully mash them into a paste with a wooden spoon and stir into the onion.
Add the pine nuts and raisins or currants and toast briefly.
Add the saffron-water or tomato mixture, rinse out the bowl with another full ladle of cauliflower water and add that to the pan also. Adjust the heat to bring to a gentle simmer. Simmer for one minute, or a little longer if using tomato.
Add the cauliflower to the pan and stir vigorously, breaking up the cauliflower into small pieces but not liquefying it completely.
Simmer the sauce until the cauliflower is falling apart and the flavors are melded. This could be anywhere from five to ten minutes or more. Each taste should be harmonious, no one ingredient standing out too much (except maybe a raisin) and the cauliflower should be completely soft. Add additional cooking water if needed to keep the sauce liquid, but not soupy. Turn off the heat until the pasta is ready.
Finish the dish
If the cauliflower water seems insufficient to cook the pasta, add some more water. It should be at least 4 liters.
Decide where you will toss the finished pasta with the sauce. If your pasta pot is not large enough to accommodate the pasta and sauce comfortably (and you’re not planning on tossing in a frying pan) use a large bowl to toss the pasta (preferably a warm ceramic bowl).
Bring the cauliflower water back to a full rolling boil.
While the water is coming to a boil, set a serving bowl or individual wide bowls or plates somewhere warm near the stove or in a low oven. Set a colander in the sink (if you are intrepid with tongs and not using the pasta pot to toss you can skip this step). Have potholders within reach. Have your breadcrumbs and any tools you need nearby. Have your guests be seated. Now is the time to make sure everything is ready. Pasta does not improve once it is cooked and it does not forgive.
Check that the water tastes sufficiently salty.
Note the cooking time on the pasta package, subtract four minutes and set a timer.
Add the pasta to the boiling water. DO NOT BREAK THE PASTA IN HALF. If using long pasta, stir the strands until they are completely submerged. Continue stirring often so the pasta does not stick to the bottom. This becomes less urgent the closer the pasta is to being done.
Meanwhile, reheat the sauce over medium-low heat.
When the timer goes off, take a mugful of the cooking water, rich with starch from the pasta, and set it near the stove.
Immediately taste a piece of the pasta. Don’t throw it at the wall or any other ridiculous ritual. Taste it. Once you feel like it’s just on the cusp of being done, but it’s not quite ready, drain it. It should not be crunchy.
Carefully drain the pasta in the colander in the sink. Add it to your predetermined tossing vessel: the pan with the sauce, the pasta pot or the serving bowl. If not using the pan, add the sauce to the pasta.
Vigorously toss the pasta and sauce together (if in a pan or pot, do it over low heat) for a minute or two until the pasta is done to your liking. It should have a firm center when you bite into it, but it should not have any crunch. It should be pleasurable to chew, neither overly resistant nor too yielding. If by the time the pasta is done the sauce seems a bit too dry, splash in some pasta cooking water a spoonful or two at a time to get the sauce to the consistency you like. It should be soft and rich in the mouth but not soupy.
Remove the pan from the heat. Add half the breadcrumbs and toss again. Empty the pan into a warm serving platter or scoop individual portions onto wide bowls or plates. Make sure the sauce’s solids are distributed evenly (over the top of the pasta is fine).
Sprinkle with the remaining breadcrumbs and drizzle over some additional oil "a crudo" (uncooked), if desired. Serve immediately.
Note the dish wants for nothing when made vegan without the anchovies, except perhaps a bit of salt. I have never tried it but I would imagine it would benefit from some nutritional yeast.