There were so many reasons for me not to make this dish.
First, I’m not a pasta fan. I know, I know, I’m strange. It just does nothing for me.
Second, this recipe was featured in Fine Cooking (good) by Ellie Krieger, R. D. (eh). Nothing against the lady, but she’s a dietitian. The last thing I want in my kitchen is a dietitian.
(Wait, aren’t you a… ???)
Yes, yes I am. But I don’t make brownies with applesauce or spread light mayo on my sandwich. Light food is great. Lightened food is not my scene. Dietitians… well… they tend to feature those recipes in their columns with cutesy names like ‘Lighten Up’ or ‘Healthy Twist.’ Ellie Krieger might have some killer ideas, but I’m judging her based on the letters after her name and not her actual skill. Wrong? Yes. But truthful.
Third, upon reading this recipe, it smacked of something I loathe: food sneaking. Food sneaking is practiced by parents with picky kids or nutrition freak parents who think they are failing if their kid doesn’t eat five servings of cruciferous vegetables daily. It’s how we get rice pudding with pureed carrots, and spinach in pancakes. Drives me nuts, and it doesn’t work. Rather than making those foods tasty in their own right and developing their kids’ palate, they are selling them short. Might your kid do better in the vitamin A department? Maybe- for now. Until your kid figures out that you’re hiding undesirable things in their food, and then fit will hit the shan. And your kid still won’t like spinach.
So what caught my eye after the ‘trifecta of no’ above? Well… the picture looked really, really tasty. Creamy. Cheesy. Comforting. Then I started thinking…
Cauliflower is very creamy when pureed. It does go really well with cheese. Pasta coated in a thick layer of cheese is the one exception to my no-pasta stance. So I tried it.
W.H.O.A. I sold Ellie Krieger, R.D., way way short.
This is everything an indulgent, cheesy, fat-pants pasta bake should be. It’s not just lighter because you add cauliflower, it’s better because you add cauliflower. The pureed cauliflower gives such a creamy volume to the dish that you can’t tell where the cheese ends and the cauliflower begins. It’s like you whipped two packages of cream cheese into the shredded cheese, but with the subtle flavor of onion and garlic and no need for fat pants. Win!
Does it hurt that with each portion you get some extra veggies? No. We all need more veggies. The difference is that here they are being added because they enhance the dish, as opposed to being ushered in the back door imparting some strange color and flavor in the name of more nutrition.
Attention all those cooking for small children: your kidlets will destroy this by the bowlful. What kid doesn’t like things that are creamy and cheesy? AND it’s a great way to introduce the flavors of onion, garlic and cauliflower because they are subtle and not overpowering. AND it still has that chic, gourmet element, so you’re not just limited to eating it during the hours that Mickey Mouse Club are on. Another win!
The one thing I noticed in the comments section of the actual recipe reviews is that people were comparing this to good ol’ mac ‘n’ cheese. This has a very different texture from mac ‘n’ cheese, and you will definitely notice a flavor difference. I’m not a huge mac ‘n’ cheese person (mostly because I don’t care much for pasta), so I liked the difference, but I wanted to give the warning. If you like cheesy pasta bakes, this is totally your jam. And speaking of cheese, I doubled the cheese from the original recipe. Next time I want to add bacon. Bliss.
Let’s eat penne bathed in voluptuous cauliflower cheese sauce. With the kids. Sans fat pants.
- 1 small head of cauliflower (about 1 pound), cut into 1½" florets
- 1 medium onion, sliced
- 2 cloves of garlic, peeled
- Kosher salt
- 12 oz dried penne
- 2 c milk
- 1 tsp dry mustard
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 2 tsp chopped fresh thyme
- 4 oz coarsely grated sharp cheddar (about 1 cup)
- 2 oz finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or asiago (about 1 cup)
- Preheat the oven to 375 degrees F.
- Put the cauliflower, onion, and garlic in a steamer basket set over 1 inch of boiling water in a large pot. Cover and steam until the cauliflower is tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Transfer the cauliflower, onion and garlic to a blender.
- Remove the steamer basket and fill the pot ¾ full with water. Salt water generously and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the pasta and cook for three minutes less than the package timing. Drain and return pasta to the pot.
- While the pasta cooks, add 1 cup of the milk, the dry mustard, 1 tsp salt, and ½ tsp pepper to the vegetables in the blender and puree until smooth. Transfer to a 3-quart saucepan and stir in the remaining milk and the thyme. Heat over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling, about 3 minutes.
- In a small bowl, mix the cheeses. Add all but ½ cup of the cheese to the sauce and stir until the cheese is melted. Add the sauce to the pasta and stir to combine. Transfer the pasta and sauce to an 8-inch baking dish and top with the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese in beginning to brown, 20-30 minutes.