Mac and cheese eats its vegetables

  • Melissa Clark
  • The New York Times
6:00 a.m. Thursday, March 8, 2018 Food
Pasta with roasted cauliflower and blue cheese, in New York, Feb. 19, 2018. this cozy dish adds some flavorful roasted vegetables to a cheezy pasta. (Andrew Scrivani/The New York Times)

When it comes to foods blanketed in cheesy béchamel, we Americans think of macaroni, not vegetables. But in Britain, pale, craggy chunks of cauliflower are as likely to be doused in cheese sauce as pasta is here. This recipe combines these two great things into one cozy, creamy bowl.

It’s a little like a pasta primavera — except wintry, and made primarily with a brassica vegetable. Oh, and did I mention the blue cheese?

First and foremost, however, there’s the pasta. For this recipe, you have many options, as long as they resemble a cauliflower floret. (Use your imagination here, or try squinting.) Think short, whorled and crevice-y: campanelle, conchiglie or orecchiette. Even farfalle or fusilli will work in a pinch. Short pasta shapes with lots of nooks and crannies catch the melting blue cheese and tiny bits of cauliflower that fall off as you mix them together, not to mention all those wonderfully oily, caramelized leeks.

Had I mentioned the leeks?

They are roasted with the cauliflower, turning floppy and very sweet — sweeter even than the cauliflower, which softens and crisps at the corners. Regular white cauliflower is the classic choice. But the green, purple or orange varieties work, too, and will add a touch of festivity to the usual midwinter dinner table doldrums.

While the vegetables are in the oven getting golden and tender, cook up your pasta, then drain, saving some of the pasta water. This starchy liquid is what transforms the Gorgonzola into a luscious sauce, melting and binding it.

Then the whole shebang meets up in the bowl.

There’s the perfectly al dente pasta. (Don’t overcook it because the pasta is what provides the texture here.) There are the burnished, sweet vegetables: cauliflower, leeks and garlic. (Did I mention the garlic? It gets mixed with the roasting leeks.)

There are the crumbles of funky, earthy Gorgonzola dolce (or whatever good blue cheese you can get; the creamier, the better). Finally, mix in some thyme and chives for herbal depth and a big squeeze of fresh lemon juice for verve.

The result is nothing like macaroni and cheese, or like cheesy cauliflower. It’s complex and richly flavorful, with a bite. But it’s still got the luscious creamy factor, which in this last gasp of winter, may be exactly what you need.

— Pasta With Roasted Cauliflower and Blue Cheese

Yield: 3 to 4 servings

Total time: 55 minutes

1 head cauliflower, cut into 3/4-inch florets

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil

3/4 teaspoon kosher salt, more as needed

1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 large or 2 small leeks, halved and thinly sliced

2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

1 tablespoon thyme leaves, more for serving

8 ounces short pasta such as campanelle, orecchiette, conchiglie, farfalle or fusilli

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, at room temperature

6 ounces Gorgonzola dolce, crumbled, at room temperature

Fresh lemon juice, to taste

2 tablespoons chopped chives, for serving

1. Heat oven to 425 degrees. In a large bowl, toss cauliflower with olive oil, salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Spread onto a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer, and bake for 20 minutes.

2. Add leeks, garlic and thyme to the cauliflower on the sheet pan, then roast another 20 minutes, tossing the vegetables halfway through, until they are very tender and deeply caramelized.

3. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a boil. Cook pasta until it is 1 minute shy of being al dente. (It will continue to cook in the residual heat of the pot.) Scoop out about 1 cup pasta water (a coffee mug is good for this), then drain pasta. Return the pasta to the empty pot, along with butter, Gorgonzola, remaining 3/4 teaspoon pepper and 1/2 cup pasta water, stirring to melt cheese.

4. Toss roasted vegetables into pasta, then stir in lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Add more pasta water if mixture looks dry. To serve, spoon into bowls and top with chives and sprinkle of thyme leaves.