Green Beans with Tomato Sauce and Bacon

February 27, 2017

Earlier this month I wrote about my “crunchy vegetable” phase of cooking back in the 1970’s.  One of the dishes I was reacting to was my mother’s green beans with tomato sauce and bacon.  Honestly, though, I can’t tell you why.  It was, bar none, my favorite vegetable dish growing up.  Why, when I started cooking in my late teens, I thought I could make it better by cooking the beans until they were just crunchy is beyond me.

Chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.

Americans served a lot of mushy vegetables back then, no doubt, but the reaction shouldn’t be to turn every vegetable crunchy.  But I was just learning to cook and had a lot to learn, not only about technique, but about understanding the essence of a dish.

The essence of this dish is the silky texture (most definitely not mushy) of the beans cooked for a couple of hours in tomato sauce.  The textural change is accompanied by a flavor change that is unobtainable by quickly cooking the ingredients.

It’s actually pretty difficult to turn these beans mushy unless you boil them too long before adding them to the tomato sauce.  The tomato sauce reacts with the beans to somehow inhibit the development of mushiness.  I’m not sure, but it think it might be the acid in the tomatoes.

That first four minute boil is critical, however.  One time, thinking I could eliminate a step, I tried putting the cut up beans in the sauce without parboiling them first.  Mistake!  Four hours later the beans were still not cooked properly!

Green beans cooked in tomato sauce is a classic Italian combination.  The use of bacon clearly signals that this is Italian-American, however.  Italian recipes might use pancetta but not bacon.  Smoked foods are uncommon in traditional Italian cuisine.  The few that appear really stand out.

Pancetta and bacon are made from the same cut, pork belly.  Both are cured but only bacon is smoked.  Although I’ve made other versions of green beans in tomato sauce that are traditional Italian, rather than Italian-American, I keep coming back to this one as my favorite.

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Green Beans with Tomato Sauce and Bacon
These long-simmered green beans in tomato sauce with bacon are an Italian-American favorite. The long, slow cooking is really essential to achieving the right texture and flavor. Although I've specified the amount of water in cups, when cooking with tomato paste my mother always measured water by the can. This dish would have had five tomato paste cans of water. She didn't quite fill them to the top so each can held about 5 1/2 ounces of water, or a little over three cups total. You may need to add more water, or to boil some away, to get a thick sauce.
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Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
Course Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 25 minutes
Cook Time 3 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Cut the bacon into matchstick-sized pieces.
  2. Mince the garlic.
  3. In a heavy-bottomed pot, large enough to ultimately hold the beans, gently sauté the bacon until golden brown.
  4. Add the minced garlic to the bacon and bacon drippings and sauté until fragrant and just beginning to turn golden, about one minute.
  5. Add the tomato paste and sauté until it turns a shade darker and smells sweet.
  6. Add the water, stirring to combine. Cover and bring to a boil.
  7. Reduce to a simmer. Add salt, freshly ground black pepper to taste, oregano and sugar. Simmer, partially covered, for 45-60 minutes, stirring occasionally.
  8. Meanwhile, cut the tips off the beans at a diagonal. Cut the beans into pieces about 2 to 2 ½ inches long, also on the diagonal.
  9. Wash the beans in several changes of cold water. Cover with water and allow the beans to soak for 15 to 20 minutes, to fully plump up with water before cooking.
  10. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water (at least 4 quarts of water and ¼ cup of salt) to a boil.
  11. Drain the beans, add to the boiling water, and return to a boil as quickly as possible.
  12. Boil until the beans are just beginning to get tender, approximately 4 minutes. They will cook much longer in the sauce so be careful not to overcook them at this point.
  13. Drain the beans and add to the tomato sauce, which should have been cooking for 45-60 minutes by this point.
  14. Simmer until the beans are silky, but not mushy. This can take 2 hours, plus or minus. Go by texture, not time. The beans should be silky but still have some body.
  15. Taste once or twice while cooking and adjust salt, pepper and, if you wish, oregano.
Recipe Notes

You can make the sauce and partially cook the beans in advance. After the beans have been boiled, quickly chill them in a bowl of ice water. Cool the cooked sauce to room temperature.  Drain and add the partially cooked beans to the sauce.  Refrigerate until ready to complete cooking.

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Mom’s Pasta e Fagioli (Mom’s Pasta and Beans)

February 22, 2017

We didn’t eat a lot of prepared foods growing up.  In fact we almost never did.  OK, there were a few times in the early 60’s where I got to try out those recently-invented “TV Dinners.”

I was well into adulthood before I had a real appreciation for the quality of the homemade food that was put on our table every day.

My mother made putting great food on the table seem effortless.  I remember many Sunday mornings when I’d wake up to find her making ravioli from scratch for our big midday meal: cooking the beef and spinach filling, preparing the dough, rolling and filling the ravioli, all the while a big pot of tomato sauce bubbling away on the stove.  It was just a family Sunday dinner!

Weekday meals were usually less elaborate but no less delicious; maybe homemade sausage, pan-fried potatoes, and a vegetable or two or maybe pasta with sauce leftover from Sunday.  It was always fun to walk into the kitchen to find her making something I’d never had before; something that her mother used to make.  Sometimes that wasn’t even at a defined meal time.

Now I think I understand.  My mother died in 1993 and I bet I didn’t make her version of pasta e fagioli for 20 years after her death.  Then one day, the desire for it just struck me and there I was, in the kitchen, cooking.

It’s become part of my regular routine again after that long hiatus.  Sitting down to a bowl of my mother’s pasta e fagioli is comforting; almost as comforting as if she had made it for me.  There’s just something about the combination of pasta, beans and red sauce that I can’t explain.  It triggers an emotional bridge to what feels like an earlier time in my life.  I’m guessing something similar prompted my mother to occasionally whip up dishes from her youth that she hadn’t made in decades, if ever.

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Mom's Pasta e Fagioli (Mom's Pasta and Beans)
Follow the directions for Cannelini alla Toscana but use dried lima beans instead of cannellini and substitute ½ teaspoon of dried oregano and a sprig of fresh rosemary for the sage. There will be leftover beans that you can freeze or refrigerate for another use. You can also use two 15 ounce cans of Butter Beans in place of the home-cooked lima beans. Mom always used ditalini for this dish. These days, when you can find them (and it can be challenging) they have usually been upgraded from ditalini to ditali, though they are exactly what she used. More frequently, I use a slightly larger, but still rather small, pasta such as the mezzi rigatoni shown here.
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Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 1 1/2 hours
Servings
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Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Finely dice the onion. Sauté the onion in ¼ cup of olive oil until soft and golden.
  2. Add the crushed red pepper and sauté another minute.
  3. Add the tomato paste and sauté, stirring frequently until the tomato paste turns a shade darker and smells sweet, 2-3 minutes.
  4. Add the water, oregano, basil and salt and pepper to taste. Stir well to fully incorporate the tomato paste.
  5. Bring to a very low boil, partially covered, and cook 30-45 minutes stirring occasionally. Adjust seasoning as needed, tasting several times as the sauce cooks.
  6. Meanwhile, sauté the garlic in the remaining ¼ cup of olive oil very slowly until browned. Remove from the heat and reserve.
  7. The dish can be cooked several hours ahead to this point.
  8. Bring three quarts of water and three tablespoons of salt to a boil.
  9. While the water is heating, add the beans and their liquid to the tomato sauce, return to a simmer, and cook, partially covered till the pasta is ready.
  10. Cook pasta until it still has a small bit of chewy center. It will cook more in the sauce. Scoop out and reserve two cups of the pasta cooking liquid.
  11. Drain the pasta. Add the pasta to the tomato-bean mixture. Add the browned garlic and olive oil. Stir well, cover and cook on very low heat until the pasta is cooked but al dente and the sauce has thickened. Add some of the pasta cooking liquid as needed from time to time to create a smooth sauce.
  12. Off the heat stir in the Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning.
  13. It is not unheard of for me to add an extra glug or two of olive oil at this point to get a luscious sauce. Stir and decide if another dash of pasta-cooking water is needed, as well.
Recipe Notes

Mezzi Rigatoni

 

 

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Salsicce con Cardone (Sausage with Cardoons)

February 17, 2017

We made our move to multi-generational living in 1998 when my husband’s parents moved into the Coach House at our estate in Chicago, The Henry Rohkam House.  (There are a couple pictures of the main house in a prior post.)

Pretty quickly we settled into a routine of having meals together.  When we went to work, the dogs went to Grandma and Grandpa’s (21 feet away in the Coach House) for the day.

My husband started gardening with his father.  A large piece of our one-third-of-an-acre property in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood was turned over to cultivation.  We had grapes, strawberries, corn, tomatoes, eggplant, sweet peppers, radicchio, arugula, leaf lettuce, Swiss chard, okra, hot peppers of various types, an array of herbs and other vegetables that varied year by year.  The fruit trees never did very well.  The kiwi thrived but never bore fruit.  One of the four kiwi was accidentally injured and died.  In retrospect, it was probably the male plant (there were three female and one male plant), hence no fruit.

Every fall we canned and preserved foods in various ways.  We made jars of olives marinated in red wine vinegar and herbs from the garden.  We made herb-infused vinegar and olive oil.  We dried herbs for the winter.  We froze vats of tomato sauce.  I’ll admit to even freezing pesto which, while it doesn’t taste like its fresh-made cousin, is pretty awesome in the dead of a Chicago winter!

Some years there were enough strawberries to put up jam.  City squirrels can be quite bold, however.  I was standing alongside the garden one spring day when a squirrel, who had gone grocery shopping in our strawberry patch, literally ran over the top of my foot with a strawberry in his mouth on his way out of the produce isle.

The birds had Houdini-like skills.  Despite wrapping the grape arbor in yards of netting, the birds found their way in, decimated the grapes, and escaped.   The few grapes we were able to harvest were very sweet!

We built a temperature-controlled wine cellar in the basement of the Coach House.  My husband made wine for a few years but stopped when work got too busy.

I started cooking more often with my mother-in-law.  Every month or so, my husband’s grandmother, Noni, would come to visit for a weekend.  Noni was a marvelous cook.  Some dish always appeared during those weekends that I had never had before.  Sausage with Cardone was one of them.

For a vegetable that has been popular since the ancient Romans, I’m surprised I’d never hear of it.  I grew up eating sausage with peppers and onions.  Sometimes the sausage was cooked in a tomato sauce, sometimes not.  Cardone was a whole new thing!

This goes really well with polenta but it’s equally good on its own.  Leftover sauce can be put on pasta or can accompany a frittata.  You may notice from the pictures that we didn’t use as much sausage as called for in the recipe.  We didn’t want leftover sausage but that didn’t mean we didn’t want leftover sauce!  Sadly, the cardone usually all gets eaten on the first go-around but on those rare occasions where it doesn’t, I like to use it as a sandwich filling for lunch.

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Salsicce con Cardone (Sausage with Cardone)
Cardone looks like oversized celery. It is giant, about 2 feet long as sold trimmed in the grocery store. It is related to the artichoke and was popular among the ancient Romans. Cardone should always be served cooked. Leaves should be removed and not eaten.
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Course Mains, Meats
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Mains, Meats
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 2 1/2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. The starting point: cardone from the market.
  2. Cut off the bottom of the cardone.
  3. Using a vegetable peeler (or knife if you are my mother-in-law), remove the leafy edges of the cardone.
  4. Remove any stringy parts of each rib.
  5. Cut the ribs into pieces approximately 4 inch long. Wash well.
  6. Bring 3 quarts of water to a boil. Add 3 tablespoons of salt and a pinch of baking soda. Add the cardone and boil until you can pierce it relatively easily with the point of a sharp knife. Do not overcook the cardone as it will be cooked further with the sausage.
  7. Remove the cardone from the water. Stop cooking by putting the cardone in a bowl of ice water. When cold, cut into pieces approximately 1 ½ inches long and reserve.
  8. If the sausage is not in links, cut into pieces approximately 4-5 inches in length. Using the tines of a fork, pierce the skin of each piece of sausage in several places.
  9. Heat the olive oil in a large, heavy-bottomed sauté pan or a wide, shallow casserole. Add the sausage and brown well on all sides.
  10. Remove the sausage from the pan.
  11. Add the onions, garlic, parsley, and rosemary to the sausage drippings in the pan. Sauté until the onions are soft and golden.
  12. Add the wine, if using. Allow wine to mostly cook away then add tomato puree and water.
  13. Return the sausage to the pot with the sauce. Season with salt and freshly ground pepper. Simmer, partially covered, for about an hour.
  14. Add the cardone. Taste for seasoning. Simmer, partially covered, until the cardone is tender, approximately 30-45 minutes.
  15. Pour into a serving dish and bring to the table.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Rapini with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Red Pepper

February 13, 2017

On the whole, Italians like bitter greens.  In fact, Italians like bitter flavors in general.  For example, consider classic Italian digestifs of Fernet Branca and Ferrochina Bissleri.  Less bitter drinks include Cynar.

Rapini is a bitter green.  As with many foods, names vary.  Rapini can also be called Broccoli Raab, Broccoli Rabe, and Cime di Rape.  While some authorities say that Broccolini and Baby Broccoli are also Rapini, I have found that in American markets, these greens are usually less bitter than Rapini.  I suspect that a different variety of green is marketed under these names in the US.

Greens with olive oil, garlic and red pepper is a classic combination.  With the addition of some anchovies, it makes a wonderful sauce for pasta, especially orecchiette.

In 1989 I moved to Chicago to assume the position of Medical Director of  Chicago-Read Mental Health Center.  At the time, it was the second busiest psychiatric facility in the country.  (Only New York City had a busier psychiatric facility.)  The hospital was on the northwest side of Chicago close to both Italian and Polish neighborhoods so lunches with co-workers were always gastronomically rewarding.

I remember one lunch, early on in my tenure as Medical Director, at a nearby Italian restaurant.  The executive leadership team when out.  I ordered Rapini with Garlic and Oil for my antipasto.  What I got was an Italian-American sized portion of greens in a garlicky, surprisingly spicy broth with lots of bread on the side.

It was glorious.

This version is more restrained.  It is what we serve at home.  However, feel free to amp it up with more olive oil, garlic and red pepper if you’d like.  You can also leave a little more liquid in the dish to sop up with bread, if you’d like.

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Rapini with Olive Oil, Garlic, and Red Pepper
This dish can be made with Rapini, Broccoli Rabe, Cime di Rape, Broccolini, or Baby Broccoli. In the United States, Broccolini and Baby Broccoli seem to be less bitter than Rapini. Which to use is personal taste. It doesn’t take long to cook the greens in the boiling water. It is best to undercook them rather than overcook them as they get a second pass at the heat and can be cooked more if needed. Once the rapini are in the serving bowl I like to douse them with a few tablespoons of spicy extra-virgin olive oil for flavor. Heating olive oil tends to dull its flavor so it is almost always a good idea to add an extra bit of uncooked oil at the end.
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Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 30 minutes
Cook Time 25 minutes
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. The starting point: rapini from the market.
  2. Cut the very ends off the rapini stems.
  3. Find the part on the stem where it begins to branch in a major way. Cut crosswise at this point.
  4. If there are any little offshoots below the cut, remove them. Combine the little offshoots with the tops. Keep the bottom stems separate from the tops.
  5. Remove the outer layer of the peel from the bottom stems. To do this, look at the bottom of the stem. You’ll see a dark green layer surrounding a lighter green center. Insert a sharp paring knife into the stem just where the dark green ends.
  6. Grab the peel between your thumb and the knife and pull down to remove.
  7. Cut the peeled bottom stems into pieces approximately 1 ½ inches long.
  8. You do not need to peel or cut the tops.
  9. Bring three quarts of water to the boil. Add three tablespoons of salt.
  10. Put a bunch of ice cubes in a large mixing bowl add cover with water. Set the ice water aside.
  11. Add the stems to the boiling water. Return to a boil. Cook for 3½ to 4 minutes if you are near sea level but up to five minutes if you are at high elevation. They are done when they are toothy but have lost their crunch.
  12. Using a perforated ladle, remove the stems from the boiling water and put into the bowl of ice water to stop cooking.
  13. Add the tops to the boiling water. Return to a boil. Cook for about 2 minutes if you are near sea level but up to three minutes if you are at high elevation.
  14. Using a perforated ladle, remove the tops from the boiling water and add to the bowl of ice water along with the stem ends.
  15. Thinly slice the garlic crosswise and reserve.
  16. In a large sauté pan, heat 1/3 cup of olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, turn the heat to low, and sauté gently until the garlic is golden. Add crushed red pepper and continue to sauté until the garlic is light brown.
  17. Add the wine. The dish can be made ahead to this point. If doing so, immediately remove the garlic-wine mixture from the stove. The addition of the wine will stop the garlic from over-cooking. When resuming, or if you’re not taking a break at this point, bubble away the wine over medium heat until only oil is left in the pan.
  18. Drain the rapini.
  19. Add the rapini to the garlic and oil. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and cook briefly until heated through.
  20. If the rapini are not cooked enough to your taste, cook a bit longer. If necessary add a tablespoon or two of water.
  21. Adjust seasoning.
  22. Pour into a serving bowl and drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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Cavolfiore alla Friulana (Cauliflower Friuli-Style)

February 1, 2017

I started cooking in the early 1970’s when most cooking authorities were trying to convince us that vegetables needed to be crunchy to be good.  No doubt, many vegetables served on American tables were gray, mushy and lifeless but not all vegetables, and certainly not all vegetable dishes, are meant to be toothy, let along crunchy.

I was having a conversation with friends over dinner in Palm Springs just last week about cooking .  They asked me when I started cooking and when I told them, the muscles on their faces froze ever so briefly which made me do a quick calculation.  I started cooking before they were born!  Which means, basically, I’ve seen a lot of food fads and crazes.  I try to avoid them.

I embrace new ingredients or, as is more often the case with “new” ingredients, old ingredients that are finally finding their way to our markets and are, therefore, new to us.  When I think about the ingredients that are available to me now compared to when I started cooking, the difference is staggering.

Honestly, though, the core of my cooking hasn’t changed.  I still focus on traditional foods.  I try to find dishes that have stood the test of time; dishes that have been made for a generation or two, if not a century or two.

Sometimes, though, food crazes get us to think about how we cook and cause us to make changes for the better.  Take crunchy vegetables.  I think American vegetable cookery started getting better when “everyone” was hyping crunchy vegetables.  It got us to think about what was on our plates and whether the essence of a particular vegetable dish was best presented with soft vegetables, crunchy vegetables, or something in between.

Not every vegetable dish is better with crunchy vegetables.  That took me a while to learn as a novice cook in the 1970s when I tried to convert every vegetable recipe to one with toothy vegetables.  They were not all successful.  Not only does texture change with more cooking, flavor does too.  Sometimes those flavor changes “make” the dish as much as the textural change.

This recipe is a good example, though it is not one that I was making in the 70’s.  The essence of the dish is slow-cooked cauliflower and onions that become sweet as the natural sugars caramelize and the cauliflower softens.

I learned to make this from my mother-in-law, who is from Friuli.  Friuli is northeast of Venice, adjacent to Slovenia.  The food definitely shows the influence of Eastern and Central Europe but more on that in upcoming posts.

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Cavolfiore alla Friulana (Cauliflower Friuli-Style)
This dish goes really well with roasted meat. It is a little on the sweet side because the sugars in the onion and cauliflower caramelize during the long, slow cooking. I especially like it with roast chicken or roast pork. Experiment with the cooking time to achieve different textures, but never crunchy. The cauliflower should be soft but not mushy. You can keep the florets more intact during the cooking by being gentle. You can also press down on them every now and then causing them to break up. Both styles are equally traditional. As you will see in the pictures, I opted for longer cooking to create more caramelization and the pressing motion to break the florets into small pieces.
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Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
Course Sides, Vegetables
Cuisine Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 2 hours
Servings
people
Ingredients
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Instructions
  1. Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, cut off the base of stem of the cauliflower and remove the green leaves.
  3. Add the cauliflower to the boiling water and cook, uncovered, until it shows just a little resistance when pierced with the point of a knife. This will take between 6 and 10 minutes depending on the cauliflower and how far above sea level you are. When in doubt, opt for less cooking rather than more as you can compensate during the slow-cooking phase.
  4. Using a large slotted spoon, remove the cauliflower. Place it in a colander to drain.
  5. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, sauté the diced onion in olive oil (or butter) over medium-high heat. Season with salt. The salt will draw out moisture from the onion. As the moisture evaporates you will need to reduce the heat to medium-low to prevent the onion from browning.
  6. When the liquid has evaporated and the onion is beginning to soften, add the minced garlic, if you are using it. Continue to cook over low heat until the onion turns golden but not brown. This can easily take another 20-30 minutes.
  7. As the onion is cooking, cut the cooked cauliflower into florets.
  8. When the onion is golden, add the cauliflower. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally.
  9. Add a little wine or water from time to time, as needed, to keep the cauliflower from sticking. There really shouldn’t be any appreciable liquid in the bottom of the pan. Should that happen, uncover the pan slightly till the liquid evaporates.
  10. The florets will break apart as the cauliflower cooks. If you want small pieces, press down on the cauliflower from time to time while cooking. As the cauliflower cooks, taste a few times to adjust salt and pepper.
  11. The cauliflower will slowly darken through caramelization. How far you want to go is up to you. I went fairly far when cooking the cauliflower in these pictures. The cauliflower gets softer the longer it cooks but it also caramelizes more. Figure out the balance of texture and taste you like best.
Recipe Notes

Copyright © 2017 by VillaSentieri.com. All rights reserved.

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