Nonno Custodi’s Pasta al Cavolfiore

  Region:  Puglia, southern Italyimg_5925
  WRITTEN BY: GEORGE “NONNO” CUSTODI (MY FATHER)

 This dish is in the “Cucina Povera” category, because the   ingredients are inexpensive and common to the Region.   Meat was in short supply, so the protein came more from   legumes and fish – hence the anchovies.

I remember having it as a young boy in post-WW2 Italy, while living with my grandparents in Trani, near Bari.  I have been preparing it ever since, and have perfected the technique somewhat, although it is impossible to perfect something that is quasi-perfect already.  The ingredients are all nutritious, spanning a range of flavors, and therefore you must resist the temptation to add spices (except perhaps for a pinch of those flaming little crushed red peppers called “diavolicchi” or little devils).  No grated cheese, please.  The Italian culinary police will add you to the culinary outlaw list!! The grated cheese flavor is too strong for the delicate flavors of the other ingredients, and is not exactly compatible with the anchovies, which add flavor on their own.  This dish is simplicity, something we often forget about, but that we need to experience – just the simple harmony of basic ingredients, without other ingredients added to confuse the simple nature of this dish.

Ingredients:  (Serves 6 people, more or less, depending on appetite)
  • One medium fresh head of cauliflower, rinsed and chopped into walnut-sized pieces (You may soak the cauliflower to ensure it is clean.)
  • 3 or 4 garlic cloves crushed & chopped
  • 1 lb of good quality pasta. We are using the propellor-shaped Eliche by Monograno Felicetti.
  • 1 jar of anchovies in olive oil
  • Croutons, preferably home-made
  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil, ½ cup or less. We are using our 100% Organic Umbrian Extra Virgin Olive Oil by Noemio Bacci.
  • Sea salt – to taste
  • Best if paired with a robust, dry white wine, like Chardonnay, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo, Gavi di Gavi, Falanghina, Orvieto Classico.  Could also go with a very dry rosè, or if a bit more daring, try a light dry-red like Chianti, Valpolicella, Pinot-noir, Beaujolais, etc.
Preparation:
  • In a large skillet, add the cauliflower and about ½” of water, bring to a boil, cover and simmer on low heat until the cauliflower is tender (about 20 min.)
  • While cauliflower is simmering, in a separate small pan, lightly simmer garlic in olive oil, and when translucent, add contents of anchovy can, including the oil.  Simmer and stir until anchovies have disintegrated.  Set aside.
  • Also while cauliflower is simmering, parboil the pasta for less than 5 min.  Drain, saving the pasta water, and dump the pasta into the large skillet with the cauliflower, which by now should be tender.  Stir the cauliflower and pasta with gusto, ensuring there is enough liquid in the skillet to continue cooking the pasta. Raise the heat, and stir occasionally until pasta is cooked in with the cauliflower, adding the hot pasta water occasionally to maintain moisture (and prevent sticking) in the same way that risotto is prepared. (About 7-9 min.)
  • When pasta is almost “al dente” stir in the anchovy, garlic and olive oil, and continue to stir until a creamy consistency is achieved.
  • Add croutons and stir in just before serving.  Serve hot. Buon Appetito!!

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If you are interested in WWII Italy, Nonno’s story and history in general you should check out his book, Three Witnesses (also available here).