Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Pasta with Buttery Broccoli and Cauliflower

Once upon a time, before I knew myself much at all, I studied pure mathematics. I was entranced by the beauty of the world, and thought maths might be a way to understand it. Now I no longer need to understand, but instead want only to appreciate and celebrate what is before me; and I do this through words and people.

So I have forgotten almost everything I learned; but every now and then I still stumble across an intriguing mathematical observation. For example, I recently noticed that a cauliflower is a fractal. Simply put, this means that its large florets and small florets repeat elements of the same mathematical pattern.

Next time you have a cauliflower in your kitchen, take some time to look at it. Sit down, and examine the curd. Notice its whorls, how the florets are like little trees, from which smaller trees branch; notice how the branches cluster. Break off a floret, and compare its form to that of the whole you have just observed. Now break a little floret off the bigger floret, and compare the two. Continue until you cannot separate the florets without damage. If you have a magnifying glass handy, peer at the smallest floret, and see how it continues the pattern you have observed on the largest.

For a mathematical description of what is going on, click here.

Or, if you are more poetically inclined, merely murmur to yourself,

Big fleas have little fleas,
Upon their backs to bite 'em,
And little fleas have lesser fleas,
and so ad infinitum.

(Which reminds me of a photograph of a flea I once saw, taken through an electron microscope. Upon its back, lodged in the crevices, one saw mites. As someone who has always been very attractive to fleas, mosquitoes and March flies, it was nice to know that, from time to time, justice prevails.)

By now, between the maths and the fleas, I have probably put everyone off their grub. Nevertheless, here’s a recipe. I have been eyeing off this suggestion by Deborah Madison for years, but have always been put off by the idea of cauliflower as a pasta sauce. That, and the inclusion of shallots. Madison uses three in her recipe; and she is referring to those tiny tight brown onions, insides tinged purple, whose texture is melting and flavour is sweet; but they are so hard to find.

However, with half a cauli and some broccoli in the fridge and my father coming for dinner, it was time to be brave. I tried the recipe sans shallots. It was delicious. The tiny pieces of cauliflower and broccoli were soft against the pasta; the Dijon and lemon gave character to the unctuous base; and the toasted breadcrumbs provided a delightfully contrasting crunch. I ate two big helpings, and would have gone a third except the men beat me to it.

Pasta with Buttery Broccoli and Cauliflower

- ½ medium-sized head cauliflower
- 1 medium or 2 small heads broccoli
- 7 tbs unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 2 tbs Dijon mustard
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp balsamic vinegar, or to taste
- 5 or 6 stalks flat-leaf parsley, chopped
- zest of half a lemon, finely chopped
- 1 cup bread crumbs (I chucked a very thick slice of slightly stale bread into the food processor and whizzed until I had an exciting combination of fine crumbs and little chunks.)
- 4 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped
- 300g dried pasta (I used Powlett Hill’s spirals; Madison recommends wide handmade spinach or fresh herb noodles, but then she doesn’t have three young hungry children clamouring for dinner.)
- salt
- Parmesan (optional)

Heat a large pot of water. While it is heating, break the cauliflower and broccoli into tiny florets. You should have 4 – 5 cups of florets.

Place 4 tablespoons of the softened butter with the mustard, garlic, vinegar, parsley and lemon zest into a bowl, and blend using a fork.

Melt the remaining butter in a wide skillet. Throw in the breadcrumbs, and toss and fry until they are golden and crisp. Scrape them into a bowl and set aside.

Once the water is boiling, gently melt the flavoured butter in the same skillet you used for the breadcrumbs. Add the sun-dried tomatoes.

Salt the water, and throw in the cauliflower and broccoli florets. Return to the boil and cook for 1 minute only. Scoop out the florets and place into the skillet with the butter and ¼ cup of the cooking water.

Add the pasta to the boiling water, and cook. Drain the pasta immediately it is done, add it to the skillet and cook for another minute, stirring gently to combine.

Serve sprinkled with a generous helping of breadcrumbs, and some grated Parmesan if you like.

Adapted from a recipe by Deborah Madison in The Greens Cookbook. For some lovely observations on the onion, read The Supper of the Lamb by Robert Farrar Capon; I have reviewed it here.

(Local: cauliflower, broccoli, garlic, parsley, lemon, pasta. Made locally from unspecified ingredients: butter, bread. Not local: Dijon, balsamic vinegar, sun-dried tomatoes, pepper, salt, parmesan.)

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