The answer, I can assure you, is worthy of a writeup. As is the recipe, which makes cheddar sing. Pasta and parm go together so seamlessly, it seems silly to even question using any other cheese as a finisher. Cheddar with pasta doesn't exactly seem like a logical fit, regardless of my love of both. But considering my proclivity towards all things cheddar, I'm surprised I've never thought to try it out. Cheddar melts beautifully, and if you buy an aged version, it's even more complex. A farmhouse cheddar would be delicious in this, too: slightly more earthy and savory.
I thought of trying something simple like Cacio e Pepe with cheddar instead of pecorino, to really highlight the cheddar on its own, with no embellishments. But cheddar has that bright milky sharpness-- that thing unique to cheddar and cheddar alone — and I wanted to develop a pasta recipe that would incorporate other elements to complement that.
So then I started thinking about cabbage.
Cabbage is a seriously underutilized pasta partner. Sautéed in butter and tossed with noodles and copious amounts of lemon and cheese is one of the best ways to enjoy the vegetable. Especially if you can find a Savoy.
It's almost Irish in nature, the cabbage and cheddar combination. And the cabbage made me think of cauliflower—roasted, more specifically—which kind of fit in with the Irish theme, too. I guess you could think of this pasta as Irish fusion, or at the very least, as an ode to brassicas.
Because I love cheddar with briny things like olives, and because cauliflower and capers are such natural friends, fried capers seemed like a perfect way to finish it all off. And finish it, we did.
Roasted Cauliflower and Cabbage Pasta with Fried Capers and CheddarServes 4
1/3 cup plus 3 tablespoons olive oil
1 head cauliflower, trimmed, cored, and cut into small-sized florets
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 medium head Savoy cabbage (about 1 lb.), cored and thinly sliced
1 large shallot, sliced
3 sprigs thyme
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/4 cup large capers, drained, rinsed, and patted dry
1/2 pound pasta, such as orecchiette
2 cups coarsely grated sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons fresh thyme, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Preheat oven to 425°F with a rack in the lower third and a baking sheet on the rack.
Carefully remove the hot baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil. Add cauliflower and drizzle with 2 tablespoons olive oil. Season liberally with salt and pepper and shake pan to distribute cauliflower in an even layer. Return baking sheet to oven and roast until deeply golden, shaking pan halfway through, about 30 minutes. Set aside.
Meanwhile, in a large skillet over medium-high heat, melt butter. Cook until lightly browned and fragrant, about 3 minutes. Add cabbage, shallot, thyme sprigs, and a healthy amount of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until cabbage is wilted and deeply golden, about 15 minutes. Add white wine and cook until nearly evaporated, scraping the bottom of pan to deglaze. Turn off heat until ready to assemble pasta.
In a small skillet, heat remaining 1/3 cup olive oil until 350°F when read with a candy thermometer. Alternatively, you can test the oil by carefully dropping a caper into the skillet. If it sizzles vigorously, the oil is ready. Add capers and fry until crisp and light golden, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer capers to a paper towel-lined plate.
In a large pot of boiling salted water, cook pasta according to package directions. Drain, reserving 1 cup pasta water.
Add the pasta to the skillet with the cabbage and return to a medium-high heat. Add the cheese and then the pasta water, 1/4 cup at a time, until pasta becomes slightly saucey. Fold in the roasted cauliflower, chopped thyme, and parsley. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper. Top with fried capers and serve immediately.
Nora Singley used to be a cheesemonger and the Director of Education at Murray's Cheese Shop. Until recently she was a TV Chef on The Martha Stewart Show. She is currently a freelance food stylist and private chef in New York City.
(Images: Nora Singley)