A while back we were invited to Windsor Ontario Canada to meet Nonna Gina and her family who were gracious enough to share a couple family favourite recipes with us here at Nonna’s Way. You may remember the ‘schiacciata’ recipe, a delicious Sicilian pizza-like dish filled with potatoes, onions, ground meat, and sauce. The second dish was a pleasant surprise and something neither of us had ever tried. At first we were told the name, pasta con la broccola – pasta with broccoli. Ok, we’ve both heard of that, as I’m sure many of you have but this – mark my words, is not the pasta with broccoli that we were thinking of. After discussing the origins of Gina’s family and hearing about the changes to this recipe over the years, we noticed that Nonna Gina was washing cauliflower not broccoli. When we asked for clarification she said that that is what they call broccola. And so, staying true to Nonna Gina’s family recipe this is called pasta con la broccola but yes, this is actually pasta with cauliflower. There are certain varieties of broccoli in Italy, such as broccolo Romanesco, which is also referred to as cauliflower so this explains how names can quite easily get interchanged.
Sicilian cuisine owes much of its fame to the many cultures that have existed on this strategic Mediterranean island over time. Each era of rule over the island brought its own flavours, foods, and traditions that were enhanced further by the nutrient rich volcanic soil and the local people who embraced and intensified all the cultural influences into a wonderful melting-pot cuisine. For example, take only the most popular addition from each culture; durum wheat and sea salt from the Phoenicians; cheese and fish from the Greeks; wine and bread from the Romans; citrus, spices, coffee,nuts, and dried pasta from the North Africans; livestock from the Normas; classic Italian herbs from the Germans; and last but not least – chocolate, vanilla, and the TOMATO from the Spanish!!! I mean, where would Italian food be without all these major injections of flavours and know-how?
Gina’s family comes from a small town close to the southern shores of Sicily in the province of Agrigento called Aragona. Her mother, Nonna Marianna, was born and raised here. Sicily was victim to immense bombing and devastation during the war leaving resources and food supplies very low. Nonna Marianna had a large family to feed and started to experiment with her pasta dishes. Every pasta dish centred around homemade pasta noodles, fettuccini being her favourite, with the addition of a sauce or vegetables. Nonna Marianna experimented with numerous locally grown and in-season vegetables. After many unique dishes, pasta con la broccola was a hit and became the family favourite. This family recipe has been passed down from generation to generation. After moving to Canada, Nonna Marianna’s daughter, the now Nonna Gina, experimented by adding mozzarella cheese to the dish which gave it a new flare and added richness. This new variation became her daughters’ and granddaughters’ most requested pasta dish.
Whether or not you think you like cauliflower, I am telling you – you’ve got to try this! We sat down to eat what I fully expected to be a vegetable pasta dish but if I didn’t see it being made with my own eyes so chock full of cauliflower, I would have sworn it was a rich alfredo sauce! Even knowing very well that we had to leave room for the schiacciata coming out of the oven we all had seconds of this pasta with cauliflower!
It is a creamy, rich tasting pasta dish that doesn’t feel like you ate a creamy rich pasta dish! The biggest thing to remember is leaving enough water in the pot when draining the pasta, see picture below. And, of course, fresh pasta works best! Take the time to try this, you won’t be disappointed!
Cheesy Cauliflower Pasta
A healthy Italian pasta recipe with loads of cauliflower – tastes like alfredo sauce but without cream!
- 1 large or 2 small cauliflower, quartered
- 1 kg Fettuccine noodles, fresh noodles work best
- Salt to season
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
- Cracked black pepper, to season to taste
- 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese
- Wash and cut the cauliflower into quarters.
- Bring a large pot of water to boil and salt well to taste. Make sure there is enough water to cover the cauliflower.
- Cook until fork tender and soft enough to mash with a fork.
- Remove the cauliflower from the water with a slotted spoon. DO NOT discard the water.
- Mash the cauliflower with a fork. Set aside.
- Bring the pot of water back to a boil and add the pasta noodles.
- Cook the pasta only to “very” al dente as they are going to cook further with the mashed cauliflower and cheese.
- Remove the pot from the heat and start to remove the water with a ladle. Set aside 2-3 cups of the water. You want enough water to remain with the noodles in the pot so that the water level is about ¼ of the way up the height of the al dente noodles.
- Add the mashed cauliflower to the noodles.
- Add the parmesan cheese and return to the heat.
- Add the olive oil to the pot.
- Let this all simmer slowly in order to melt the cheese.
- Add some cracked black pepper to your liking.
- After about 5 minutes when the sauce has thickened a bit, add 2 cups grated mozzarella cheese a little at a time and stir continuously.
- Add in a bit of the reserved pasta water if you find it is getting a dry.
- It will be finished about 2 minutes after adding the mozzarella.
- Serve immediately while hot. Add some hot peppers! Enjoy!