Considering where I’m from (California), a lot of you are going think, “Whole-wheat pasta with cauliflower, walnuts, and feta cheese is hippie food.” You’ll be right: It is hippie food, at least in the sense that it uses odd, healthful and touchy-feely ingredients to create a milder, less traditional and admittedly less masculine pasta dish.
But I swear it’s delicious. The thing about “revolutionary,” or rather “eccentric,” cuisine is that it doesn’t have the benefit of many generations of old-world grandmothers honing recipes into their current perfect forms. So if you want to make a delicious whole-wheat pasta with hippie sauce, you’ve got to hone the recipe yourself. Fortunately, in this case, the “Chez Panisse Vegetables” cookbook has done most of the work. I’ve spent the last year or so decoding the recipe’s unwritten intricacies, and now I’m ready to pass on my new-world hippie wisdom in a few key pieces of advice:
Have everything chopped and set aside in little bowls before you actually start cooking. This recipe moves fast, and if you have to stop a moment to toast the walnuts or crumble the cheese, you’ll fall behind and do something awful like overcook the pasta.
Use good whole-wheat pasta. The only brand I’ve liked is De Cecco, which doesn’t use a high-tech formula with flax and chickpeas like some other brands.
Salt the pasta water heavily. That’s true for all pasta; if you’re cooking one or two boxes, use a large stockpot and a few handfuls of salt. I once read that if you dip your finger in the pot and taste it, the water should taste as salty as ocean-water. I agree.
Don’t start cooking the pasta until the cauliflower and onions are nearly browned. Also, cook them over high heat, so they brown quickly. The vegetables take longer than the pasta, and you don’t want cooked pasta sitting around and getting sticky while you finish the sauce. If need be, reheat the sauce when the pasta is finished.
Finish the dish with lots of olive oil. The sauce is already dry, and if the pasta’s dry too, the flavors won’t meld together very well. I nearly always finish a sauce with a little of the fat that started it, and in this case you want more than a little.
Then serve and enjoy it. If you learn anything along the way, let me know.