pantry pasta from palermo

bucatini with cauliflower & breadcrumbs

Before we dive in…

Private virtual classes are back for the holidays! If you’re looking for a fun date night in or a gift for the food lovers in your life, look no further than handmade pasta. We’ll cover the dough and shape of your choice—oh, and no pasta machine? No problem! Equipment-free options are available. Tickets are limited and classes must be booked by March 31, 2023.

Click here for details!

Since our first workshop sold out so fast (thank you!), I’ll be hosting another virtual stuffed pasta workshop in partnership with Milk Street on Monday, November 7 at 6:00pm Eastern. We’ll make the pasta dough together, then transform it into some more intricate stuffed shapes like caramelle and scarpinocc, all packed with a roasted winter squash filling—a perfect project for the cooler weather. (And don’t forget to use code PASTASOCIAL for 15% off!)

Click here for tickets!

Now, onto the recipe!

In May 2020, at the height of lockdown, I started taking Italian lessons. It was a lonely time, so joining a group (virtually) to learn something new felt like a good and fulfilling way to spend the morning. We were an eclectic bunch—a grandmother and her daughter, a yoga instructor, an engineer, and me—all stumbling through sentences and reminiscing about trips to Italy that felt so long ago. Our instructor, Alessia, was kind and easygoing, and not much older than I was. She made us want to learn more, get comfortable with our mistakes, and be proud that we were trying something so many others want to—but never actually—do. Over time, I started taking private lessons with Alessia and we became friends.

Alessia is from Palermo, the capital of Sicily and one of the world’s most fascinating cities. Founded by the Phoenicians in the 8th century B.C., Palermo’s changed many, many hands—and all have left their mark. In its earliest history, there were the Romans and the Byzantines. Then came the Arabs in 831, and for two centuries Palermo prospered, trading heavily with North Africa, before being conquered by the Normans in 1072. During Norman rule—its “golden age,” many say—Palermo was a cultural hub, with Arabs, Jews, Greeks, and Normans living together peacefully. The Germans came next, and later the French and the Spanish before Giuseppe Garibaldi seized the city in 1860 and it became part of the kingdom of Italy.

This cosmopolitan past is evident in Palermo’s winding roads and stunning architecture, and also in its food. You’ll find punchy flavors that play with sweet, savory, and sour, largely inspired by the Arabs and the Spanish: saffron, raisins, pine nuts, and anchovies are all pantry staples. So today we’re going to use (most of) those ingredients to make one of Alessia’s favorite dishes: pasta chi vruoccoli arriminati. Alessia is quick to explain the name: “When most Sicilians say ‘vruoccolo,’ they don’t mean broccoli but cauliflower (we are weird that way :-D).” Arriminati means “stirred,” since stirring the sauce is key to turning such a tough vegetable into a tender condiment.

Like most pantry meals, this recipe was born as a “poor man’s” dish. Cauliflower is cheap and easy to come by in Sicily, and instead of finishing it all off with cheese (a luxury many couldn’t afford), it’s topped with toasted breadcrumbs (“muddica atturrata” in dialect).

“It is a much-loved recipe,” Alessia notes. “It’s the recipe that grandmothers and mothers from Palermo always prepare in [fall and] winter when cauliflower is in season.”

It’s also just as popular among locals as the city’s more well-known dishes like pasta con le sarde (pasta with sardines) and anelletti al forno (little pasta rings baked with meat and tomato sauce). And, unsurprisingly, there are variations, from the type of cauliflower, which can be white or green (Romanesco), to the pasta shape (Alessia prefers bucatini—and really, why would you would want anything else anyway?), to the addition of tomato or saffron. “Some people put this dish in the oven to brown it and make it more crunchy, too,” she says.

It won’t come as a surprise that Alessia doesn’t follow a recipe, so I’ve done my best—with her guidance—to record it accurately. I have, however, introduced one major difference: Alessia, as is traditional, par-cooks the cauliflower in boiling water before adding it to the aromatics, and this water is then used to cook the pasta. I skipped the boiling which, in all honesty, was due to a miscommunication on my part (oops!), but ultimately I’m very pleased with the result. Adding the cauliflower in raw takes a little more time, but it has wonderful texture—tender but not mushy.

So now you have two options:

  • If you want to take my happy-accident route, follow the recipe as-written, but make sure to break the cauliflower into slightly smaller-than-bite-sized florets so they cook more quickly. Note that the video above is a compilation of multiple recipe tests, so you’ll notice the size change there, too—use the later clips as reference.

  • If you want to take the traditional route, cut the cauliflower into bite-sized florets (as pictured in the ingredient image below). Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then salt it well; meanwhile, cook the onion/anchovy/pine nut mixture as directed. Boil the cauliflower until tender, about 7 minutes, then use a slotted spoon to transfer it to the pan with the aromatics. Add the bucatini to the cauliflower water and cook according to the packet instructions, and at the same time continue to cook/break down the cauliflower in the pan. Add the tomato paste and proceed as directed.

Whatever method you choose, the whole thing is—like so many Sicilian dishes—unexpected, perfectly balanced, and difficult to stop eating.

Alessia’s Bucatini with Cauliflower & Breadcrumbs

The full video is for paid subscribers

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