real life test kitchen: baked pasta with cauliflower and saffron

The scene: Memorial Day backyard barbeque. The situation: 25 parents, 15 people under three feet tall, and waaaaaay too many hot dogs. I knew everyone was bringing things in buns and cold tossed salads, but when I got the invite for a pot luck party, I thought, I’ll bring a baked pasta dish. It’s the one thing everyone will eat and the one thing no will think of today.

So I culled through my Pinterest recipe board and pulled out a recipe from The New York Times health section. What makes this baked pasta dish so grown up are two unexpected ingredients: saffron threads and anchovies. They gave it a layer of sophistication and paella-like flavor that kept both adults and kids coming back for more.

Here’s my take on Baked Ziti Rigate.

What You Need

1 cauliflower, leaves and stem trimmed, florets separated
Pinch of saffron threads
2 tbls extra virgin olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
3 anchovy fillets, rinsed and chopped
1 14-ounce can chopped tomatoes, with juice
2 tbls chopped flat leaf parsley
3/4 pound ziti or penne
1/2 cup grated Parmesan
1/2 cup shredded fresh mozzarella

How To Make
1. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Add the cauliflower and boil until the florets are tender — about 10 minutes. Using slotted spoon or tongs remove the cauliflower from the water, drain and rinse with cold water. Turn off the heat but keep the water in the pot.
2. Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Lightly oil a large casserole dish.
3. When the cauliflower is cool enough to touch, crumble it with your hands into small pieces. Save in a bowl.
4. Meanwhile, place the saffron in a small bowl and add 3 tbls warm water. Let soak for about 10 to 15 minutes.
5. Heat 1 tbls of the olive oil over medium heat in a large, heavy skillet and add the garlic. Cook, stirring, until it’s fragrant, about a minute. Then, add the anchovies and tomatoes. Season to taste with salt and freshly ground pepper. Turn the heat down to medium-low and cook, stirring often, until the tomatoes have cooked down and smell fragrant, about 10 minutes. Stir in the cauliflower, saffron and the water it was soaking in, and parsley, cover and simmer for another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Taste and adjust seasonings.
7. Toss the pasta with half the cauliflower-tomato mixture and half the cheese and spoon into the baking dish. Combine the remaining cauliflower-tomato mixture with the rest of the cheese and spoon over the pasta. Sprinkle shredded mozzarella on top. Drizzle a little olive oil on top.
8. Place in the oven and bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until bubbling.

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