I may have mentioned this before, but I used to be a very picky eater. And I’m not just talking about my childhood. I mean, throughout most of my adolescent and adult life I had very strict rules about what I would not eat. I didn’t eat much. Some of those verboten items were onions, raw tomatoes, mushrooms, peppers (green or red), olives, mustard, mayonnaise, avocados, sour cream, and anything spicy.
When I was 19, I lived for one summer with my aunt and uncle in San Francisco. They cooked a lot, and they were not picky. It became clear right away that they were not going to change their eating habits to accommodate my ridiculousness, and that if I wanted to eat, I would have to get over it. And I did. That summer, my culinary world opened up. But there were still things I was a little less sure about.
I mentioned last week that sardines and other canned fish still occupy a precarious place in my kitchen. But anchovies have weaseled their way in. It started years ago, when I first started writing this blog. Aside from living with family members who won’t put up with pickiness, learning to cook is an excellent way to broaden your palate. One of the first things I wanted to cook for this blog was penne puttanesca, and I knew that if I wanted to do it right, I’d have to include anchovies. I figured, hey, if I learned to love tomatoes and olives, two other key ingredients in this dish, I might learn to love anchovies.
I wouldn’t say I learned to love them, but I did cultivate an appreciation. And I did learn to love puttanesca.
Puttanesca is an incredibly vibrant sauce. It’s salty and lush, oily and just a little bitter. You can’t help but lick your lips when you eat it. It is food that makes you feel alive. And last week, I got a big craving. I needed to feel a little more alive.
I wanted to add more vegetable love to the dish, so I decided to throw in some cauliflower. And at the very last minute, I decided to skip the pasta altogether. I wanted a lighter lunch, because I knew we were going out for dinner later that evening. I rarely believe that skipping pasta is a good idea, but friends, this cauliflower puttanesca was perfect.
The cauliflower gets cooked in the sauce, so it takes on the bright flavors of the tomatoes, and retains just enough of its crunch to give the whole dish great texture. Its filling, but doesn’t make you feel stuffed. And it still has all that sexy, intense puttanesca flavor.
If you’re not a fan of anchovies, I suppose you could skip them here. But I wouldn’t recommend it. It’s good to give the foods you think you hate a fresh chance every now and then. Sometimes, they surprise you.
If you aren’t sure about anchovies, you can use less than I call for here, but please don’t skip them altogether. You can use any olives you want. I used Sicilian cracked green olives, and they were extra bitter. It was perfect. If you must use canned black olives, go ahead, but know that they won’t have the same full flavor. If you want to throw some capers in here, too, feel free. This is great served with some crusty bread.
- 1-2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 shallot, diced
- 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
- about 1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
- a generous pinch of salt and some black pepper
- 3 anchovy fillets
- about 1/2 cup of chopped green or black olives
- 1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes
- 1 head cauliflower
Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat in a large skillet, preferably one that has a lid. Add the shallot and saute, stirring frequently, until it begins to soften. Add the garlic, and saute for another 30 seconds. Stir in the red pepper flakes, salt and pepper, then the anchovies. Break the anchovies apart with the back of your spoon, then stir in the olives, and the can of tomatoes. Stir well, and bring to a low boil, then lower the heat and let the mixture simmer for about 10 minutes.
While the sauce is simmering, cut the cauliflower into small florets. You want them to be small enough so they mix well into the sauce, about 1/2 inch wide. Stir them into the tomato sauce, then cover the pan so they can steam for about 5 minutes. Test them periodically with a fork: When they are tender enough that the fork goes in easily, but they don’t break apart, they’re ready.
Serve with some bread for soaking up extra sauce, and a green salad if you need even more vegetation.