In Palermo, Sicily, cauliflower is called broccolo, while in the rest of Italy it is called cavolfiore and is a favorite vegetable for marinated salads, batter-fried, and, most popular of all, combined with macaroni. The original recipe for this rigatoni-and-cauliflower casserole belonged to Sicilian cook Lucia Pullo Priolisi, whose daughter Marie passed it on to me.
I have made some cooking step changes, preferring to bake the meatballs instead of frying them and roasting the cauliflower at the same time. This dish is a perfect choice for a crowd because it will easily serve up to sixteen people, and can be made ahead of time and reheated. Any short-cut pasta can be used but because the pasta will be baked after it is boiled, it should be firmer than usual when drained.
1/4 cup Filippo Berio extra-virgin olive oil
or cooking spray
1 large head cauliflower (2 pounds), washed and trimmed into 1-inch florets
1/2 cup fresh bread crumbs
5 tablespoons milk
1 pound lean ground beef
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
3/4 cup freshly grated Pecorino cheese
1 medium-size onion, coarsely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 cups prepared tomato sauce of your choice
1 pound rigatoni or other short type of macaroni
Coat the bottom of one 13 1/2 x 9-inch baking dish with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil and set aside.
Lightly coat another 13 1/2 x 9-inch baking dish and one cookie sheet with olive oil spray and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 350ºF.
Dry the cauliflower florets with a kitchen towel and transfer them to the olive-oil-coated baking dish. Toss them with a spoon to evenly coat them with the oil. Set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the bread crumbs with the milk and let the mixture stand for a couple of minutes. Add the beef, oregano, salt, pepper, and ¼ cup of the cheese. Mix to combine the ingredients, then, with wet hands, form 1-inch meatballs and place them on the cookie sheet.
Bake the meatballs and the cauliflower at the same time, removing the meatballs after 30 minutes and the florets after 40 minutes. During the cooking time, stir the florets a couple of times. They should be cooked but hold their shape and be slightly browned.
Heat the remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil in a medium-size saucepan over medium heat and cook the onion, stirring, until it softens. Stir in the tomato sauce and heat until hot. Set aside.
Meanwhile, cook the rigatoni according to package directions, until they are still somewhat firm but not raw. Drain the rigatoni and transfer them to a large bowl.
Mix the rigatoni with 1 cup of the tomato sauce. Add the cauliflower and another cup of the tomato sauce and mix well. Add the meatballs and another cup of the tomato sauce and mix again.
Divide and transfer half of the mixture to each of the baking dishes. Spread half of the remaining cup tomato sauce over each dish. Sprinkle the top of each dish with half of the remaining ½ cup cheese.
Cover each dish with a sheet of aluminum foil. Bake, covered, for 20 minutes. Uncover and bake 5 minutes more. Serve immediately.
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