Baked Cauliflower Rigatoni

Lets face it, what pasta doesn’t taste good with cheese?  With yummy fontina, Parmesan, and creamy ricotta all mixed with lemon zest and loads of garlic and herbs, this is a delicious cheesy cauliflower pasta bake.

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About the recipe

 What I love about this dish is that the whole cauliflower is used along with a generous amount of cheese and herbs which at this time of the year at their peek. Served with a colorful green salad and a glass of wine, a gourmet dinner is what this cauliflower pasta creates.

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I saw this recipe on Barefoot Contessa’s  show on Food Network and made it right away.  I made it the first time exactly as the recipe indicated but found the original recipe to be lacking in flavor.  But the recipe had the potential for something wow so I made it again and this time made a few modifications to increase the flavor profile. Take a look at my cook’s notes below.

Skip the capers:  Ina used capers in her cauliflower bake, however I found capers to have a very strong vinegar flavor that is overwhelming and takes away from the delicate cauliflower and cheese flavors, so I left it out.  I added calabrian chilies instead that are spicy Italian chilies marinated in vinegar, so you still get the acidity of vinegar but in a subtle way.  If you don’t have calabrian chilis, that’s fine, the pasta bake will taste just as amazing without it.

Skip the panko.  It adds no flavor and makes the pasta very dry.  Another observation I made after I made this dish is that it tastes better without the panko.  Panko makes the pasta very dry and doesn’t add any flavor.  Instead, a sprinkling of Parmesan cheese makes a great alternative.

Flavor the ricotta cheese.   The original recipe uses plain ricotta cheese but I found plain ricotta takes away from the delicious veggies and lemony garlicky flavors.  Instead flavor the ricotta cheese with herbs and minced garlic before adding it to the pasta.

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The pasta is on the dry side so add some pasta water to moisten the dish.  One downside to Ina’s recipe is that the pasta can be on the dry side, and I found many reviewers on the Food Network web site had the same comment. In fact, this recipe got very poor ratings (2 1/2 stars out of 5), but I think this can be addressed if you add some of the pasta water – about 2 cups. Covering the pasta while it is baking also helps to keep the moisture in, making the pasta bake soft and moist.

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Awesome make ahead pasta! This recipe is perfect to prep ahead and keep in the refrigerator until ready to bake.   For the original recipe here is the link Barefoot Contessa’s Ina Garten’s Cauliflower Pasta Bake.  Below is my modified version.

Baked Cauliflower Rigatoni with Ricotta Cheese
 With inspiration from Barefoot Contessa on Food Network “Cooking for Jeffrey”
with a few modifications

Ingredients:

  • 1-pound medium shells or any pasta of your choice cooked according to package directions and set aside. Save 2 cups pasta water to use in the pasta bake later.
  • 2 1/2 pounds cauliflower, cut into small florets (1 large head of cauliflower)
  • 6-8 garlic cloves finely chopped – you need this many to flavor all that cauliflower, pasta, and ricotta cheese.
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tbsp finely chopped calabrian chilies if you have or use capers or just leave it out!
  • 2 cups freshly grated Italian Fontina cheese
  • 2 cups fresh ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 cup freshly grated Italian Pecorino cheese
  • 1/2 cup crumbled Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp finely chopped chives
  • 2 tbsp fresh parsley
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

  • Roast the cauliflower:  Cut 1 head of cauliflower into small florets.  Spread them on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, and sprinkle some salt and toss around.  Bake in a 375-degree oven for 20 minutes until tender and golden. Take out of oven and set aside.

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  • Season the cauliflower: In a separate pan warm 2 tbsp oil and sauté 6 finely chopped garlic cloves. Add 1 tsp red chili flakes if using and then add the roasted cauliflower and toss together.
  • Flavor the ricotta cheese with chopped chives, parsley, 2 minced garlic cloves, salt and pepper.

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  • Flavor the pasta :  To the cooked pasta add, calabrian chilies, lemon zest, Fontina cheese, Pecorino cheese, salt and pepper to taste. Add 2 cups pasta water and mix together. Next add in the cauliflower and toss together.
  • Assemble the dish and bake:  Pour the pasta into a baking dish. Top with dollops of seasoned ricotta cheese.    Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake in 400-degree oven for 30 minutes.

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The pasta should be hot and bubbly and cheese all melted.  To slightly brown the top of pasta, turn the oven to broil and brown slightly for about 2-5 minutes.IMG_1004

  • It’s ready!

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