A fishy tale

I grew up in a country that’s (mostly) surrounded by water. Even though I didn’t live within the closest vicinity to a body of water, there was no shortage of fresh food at the market every day. Seafood was abundant, and so was my family’s propensity to eat them. Lobsters, crabs, clams, you name it – they’ll eat it. I was quite spoiled, you see. It’s no surprise that I grew up to become not only a meat-loving extraordinaire, but also a seafood experimenter. But because I was exposed to fresh seafood growing up, I developed a strong preference for fish that has just been caught or has not traveled thousands of miles from afar before reaching my local market. You can’t blame a girl who wants to feel connected to her foods.

It’s no wonder that I never developed a love for anchovies, or any fish that comes in a can. Somehow, it just doesn’t taste right. Over the years, I’ve become more mellow and less resistant, more willing to try mackerel in a can but with a little scorn. As I became an adult and started feeding myself, it came down to an economical decision – either save a little bit of money, or blow my entire paycheck at Whole Foods. It’s not uncommon for me to have a can of fish or two preserved in oil in the back of the pantry.

Recently, after rearranging my spices in my top cupboard, I discovered a can of anchovies. I ignored it for the time being, thinking that I’d never find a recipe for these little guys, so they can hang out happily and quietly for as long as they wish.

Then, a few days ago, after becoming a subscriber to the NY Times Cooking blog, I received an email – one of my firsts – where they featured a pasta recipe that included anchovies. Anchovies!! Being that I also wanted to get rid of the anchovies, this serendipitous event called for the making of a beautiful dinner.

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The problem is – I’d never cook pasta with anchovies before. In fact, I’ve never had pasta with anchovies in it. The only place that I could imagine anchovies in is pizza. Needless to say, I was a little bit nervous about attempting this dish. Hence, this is the tale of the Penne Rigata with Cauliflower, better known as “Anchovy Delight” or a less delectable term, “Fishy Pasta.”

prep-veggies

With a nervousness that was equivalent to a teenager going on her very first date, I attempted this pasta recipe on Tuesday night. It was my day off from work, and a quick stop to the grocery store brought home this beautiful head of cauliflower, which I chopped into little florets and cooked in boiling water until it became tender (but not too tender). At the same time, I prepared the anchovies by rinsing them and cutting them into small pieces. What I didn’t anticipate, however, was the fact that my anchovies were a little small. While the recipe called for two anchovies, cut and rinsed, I couldn’t bear to just do two, because gosh darn – two wouldn’t have added the flavor that I was hoping to get. Hence, I decided to put in a few more…a little too much, according to my husband, who tasted my pasta later and exclaimed, “Hmmm fishy!” Later on, he told me to dial down the fish. Thanks, honey.

Besides the overdoing of the fish, the rest of the dish turned out to be a cross between cheesy goodness and a simple weeknight pasta. Within an hour, I had the pasta baking in the oven, and then I sat back and let the smells come forth. The fragrance of the canned tomatoes mixed with the subdued texture of the cauliflower, blended with the saltiness of the anchovies, olive oil, freshly chopped parsley, and sprinkled with a dash of salt and pepper, this dish turned out to be a fairly easy one. And that’s saying a lot- for someone who takes an inordinate amount of extra time in the kitchen, the fact that it only took me about an hour was a mere success in and of itself.

pasta

I might have added a few more pinches of salt, but then again I’m a very salty kind of person. With a sprinkle of sriracha or something like this, the fishy smell was a thing of the past.

Penne Rigata With Cauliflower

Adapted from NY Times Cooking section

INGREDIENTS

1 medium cauliflower* about 2 pounds, leaves and stem trimmed

Salt to taste

Pinch of saffron threads

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2 garlic cloves, minced

3 anchovy fillets* rinsed and chopped

1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice

Freshly ground pepper

2 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley

¾ pound ziti or penne rigata*

2 ounces pecorino or Parmesan, grated (1/2 cup)

PREPARATION

  1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the cauliflower and boil gently until the florets are tender but the middle resists when poked with a skewer or knife, about 10 minutes. Using slotted spoons or tongs (or a pasta insert) remove the cauliflower from the water, transfer to a bowl of cold water and drain. Cover the pot and turn off the heat. You will cook the pasta in the cauliflower water. Cut the florets from the core of the cauliflower and cut them into small florets or crumble coarsely using a fork or your hands.
  2. Meanwhile, place the saffron in a small bowl and add 3 tablespoons warm water. Let steep for 10 to 15 minutes.
  3. Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until it smells fragrant, about 30 seconds to a minute, and add the anchovies and tomatoes. Season to taste with salt (remembering that the anchovies will contribute a lot of salt) and freshly ground pepper. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower, saffron with its soaking water, and parsley, cover and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings.
  4. Bring the cauliflower water to a boil and add the pasta. Cook until just al dente, a few minutes less than you would cook it to serve. It will soften further when it bakes. Drain and transfer to a bowl.
  5. Pre-heat the oven to 375 degrees. Oil a 2-quart baking dish. Toss the pasta with half the cauliflower mixture and half the cheese and spoon into the baking dish. Combine the remaining cauliflower mixture and remaining cheese and spoon over the pasta. Drizzle on the remaining tablespoon of oil. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling. Serve hot.

Advance preparation: You can make the cauliflower preparation through Step 3 a day ahead of time and refrigerate. Reheat and proceed with the recipe. The macaroni can be assembled several hours before baking.

*NOTES*

-I used penne in this recipe, but you can also use ziti or just about any type of pasta (except spaghetti) that’s in your pantry.

-To err on the side of caution I used a whole head of cauliflower and it turned out (according to my husband) a little too much. “Less cauliflower,” he demanded. To each their own, I say. If you like cauliflower then feel free to use the whole head but if it was me, I’d scale it down if I make it again.

-Anchovy fillets are VERY “fragrant” and by that I mean they exhume the smell that closely resembles a body that has lost its rigor mortis and has been decomposing for three days combined with the swift kick of a skunk as he passes by you. With that said, there is no need to use as many anchovies as I did. Then again, it depends on the type of anchovies that you buy. The ones I had just happened to be small, so I played it safe by adding more; needless to say, less fishy is better.

-The 3/4 lb. thing was a little confusing to me in this case. I mean, I was not interested in converting 3/4 lbs to cups, so I basically went with my instinct and use two cups, which is fine really. If you like to have your pasta a little more then put more in; if you’re baking it in a regular 2 qt. baking dish then use approx 2.5 cups.

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