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March got you out of sorts? Go for comfort.

March 12, 2009

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Are you in the March doldrums as much as I am? What is it with this month? Maybe it has something to do with the progression of months before it. January is all shiny and new and full of anticipation with the New Year. February is all lollipops and rainbows, filled with chocolate and hearts and the i-love-yous of Valentine’s Day. And then March…March lands with a loud THUD. Ka-BOOM (or, maybe more appropriately with all the wet drippy weather, Ker-PLOP.) I feel like a dark cloud hangs over my head after a few days in a row of gray, drippy, dreary, clammy weather (this is unfortunate as Ithaca is known for its gray, drippy, dreary, clammy springs). I gaze despondently out the window and wonder when, oh when, will spring ever come? And then the next day, it’s sunny and 50 degrees and I’m throwing open the windows and letting in the sunshine and bouncing as I walk. And then, the next day, Ker-PLOP all over again. Geez louise, it’s enough to make anyone go crazy. Normally I consider myself a pretty sunshine-y person, but each year March really tests me.

I could try to tell myself it looks like a flower…

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Maybe this is why I’ve been turning to comfort-type foods lately; I don’t know. I’ve been making things that are warm and easy and that we can eat for a few days in a row during the week. At first I was hesitant to blog about some of these dishes, but then I reconsidered: if I’m falling for these types of foods, maybe some of you are just as discombobulated by March as I am, and maybe you’re in need of some comfort-in-a-bowl just as much as I am.

cheese makes anything better

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especially a cheesy bechamel sauce

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Take this baked penne with cauliflower and cheese, for instance. One look at it says “winter casserole.” But actually, I think it’s significantly better than just some run-of-the-mill cold weather casserole; it’s like a cross between grown-up macaroni and cheese and a cauliflower gratin…both of which I need no convincing to eat.

sprinkle, sprinkle

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Macaroni and cheese has always been one of my favorite comfort dishes (and I know I’m not alone!) When I was young, my mom (and her mom, who ironically didn’t much enjoy cooking but made a mean mac-and-cheese) used to make baked mac-and-cheese with the real thing: macaroni in a cheddar cheese sauce, topped with sliced tomatoes and breadcrumbs. My brother was so enamored of mac-and-cheese (though in his teenage years, it was the Kraft box kind) that he used to eat it at least once a week. This coincided with a period of a few years when I was taking pottery classes, so I made him a bowl that was big enough to fit an entire box of Kraft mac-and-cheese. He got a lot of use out of it.

crusty and cheesy and delicious

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So this is a new twist on one of my old comfort food favorites, spruced up a bit with the addition of cauliflower and a blend of cheeses. Penne and blanched cauliflower are mixed together with a simple bechamel sauce, amped up with Gruyere and Cheddar cheese, and then topped with breadcrumbs and Parmesan cheese. Yes, it’s definitely yummy, and definitely comfort food. And, it’s great when you pair it with some greens dressed in lemon vinaigrette.

lemony kale and ricotta salata is  great foil to the creamy pasta and cauliflower

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And, it’s a great thing to make on a Sunday and enjoy all week, while you nurse any March doldrums that seem to have settled around you…and remember: spring is just around the corner (that’s been my mantra lately!)

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Baked Penne with Cauliflower and Cheese

Adapted from Blue Eggs and Yellow Tomatoes: Recipes from a Modern Kitchen Garden by Jeanne Kelley

view printable recipe

Ingredients
1 pound whole wheat penne
1 large head cauliflower, florets thinly sliced
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 large onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bay leaf
3 cups milk
8 ounces Gruyere cheese, shredded
8 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
freshly ground black pepper
1 cup whole wheat breadcrumbs (or Panko breadcrumbs)
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
2 tablespoons parsley, chopped

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F and butter a 9×13 baking dish.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large, heavy pot over medium heat, then saute the onion until it’s translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic and saute 1 minute, then whisk in the flour and cook 1 more minute, but don’t let the flour brown. Whisk in the milk, then add the bay leaf. Bring the mixture to a boil, whisking occasionally, until it thickens. Add the cheeses and keep stirring until they melt, then stir in the salt, cayenne, nutmeg, and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Set aside (you can make this up to 1 day ahead, cooling it, covering it, and refrigerating it.)

Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and cook the penne according to the directions on the package. Four minutes before the penne is done cooking, add the sliced cauliflower florets. Drain very well.

Combine the pasta, cauliflower, and cheese sauce, stir well, then stir in the chopped parsley. Transfer the mixture to the buttered baking dish.

To make the breadcrumb topping, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and combine it with the breadcrumbs and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle evenly over the top of of the baking dish.

Bake for 30 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the breadcrumbs are golden brown.

Serves 8.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. March 12, 2009 8:48 pm

    This looks delicious, Amy. Completely ker-PLOP friendly. I’m glad to hear I’m not alone in the doldrums, but at least it gives us a chance to get some extra mileage out of winter favorites.

    How do you like this cookbook, by the way? I’ve been seeing a lot of it recently.

  2. Victoria permalink
    March 12, 2009 9:16 pm

    I’ve definitely been craving dishes like this.
    http://theidleloaf.wordpress.com

  3. March 12, 2009 10:43 pm

    Oh my goodness, does this look amazing!! This dish could totally make March a better month. I think I could eat waaaaay too many helpings of this fabulous casserole/mac ‘n cheese. It looks so good, so comforting, so perfect for making March a better month!

  4. March 13, 2009 6:56 am

    Kristin – I love the cookbook; it was a Christmas gift this year and it’s been great inspiration. Beautiful pictures and lots of recipes I have marked to try, plus, it’s fun to see how much she’s done in her urban garden.

    Victoria, Elyse – thanks!

  5. Amanda permalink
    March 13, 2009 10:51 am

    looks delicious! i recently made a similar recipe from real simple (http://www.realsimple.com/food-recipes/browse-all-recipes/macaroni-cheese-cauliflower-00000000008063/index.html) but it needed something else. i look forward to trying yours!

  6. March 13, 2009 12:49 pm

    yup, this would make me feel better right about now🙂 i think those random warm days thrown in the middle make it worse!!

  7. March 13, 2009 1:48 pm

    I know exactly what you mean about March. March and April were always my least favorite months. I was thinking of making a pasta this evening for these very reasons – comfort, ease. LOVE the cauliflower in yours. I want to dive in.

  8. March 13, 2009 3:57 pm

    Count me in for the March doldrum group! Last night I made a similar bake and it soothed the crazy wind, cold temps that we’ve been dealing with in VT.
    Love the addition of cauliflower! And it’s funny when I make something insanely cheesey like this I also add a side of kale, I think it makes me feel better about loads of cheese and pasta!

  9. March 13, 2009 5:04 pm

    Aw geez, this looks good! I think I’m going to have to run to the store for some cauliflower now!

  10. etiak permalink
    March 13, 2009 7:26 pm

    March is a difficult month because the one lone day of nice warmish weather just makes you remember what you have been missing all winter.

    I could really go for a nice slice of this right now.

  11. carolina permalink
    March 13, 2009 11:18 pm

    this dish sounds delicious!!
    maybe the fact that Big Red has won the 2009 Ivy League Championship and will be playing in the First Round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament on either Thursday, March 19 or Friday, March 20 might pull you out of your March doldrums?!? If I seem to recall, Amy, you are a Cornell alum? If so keep an eye out for our nephew Adam Wire #24… If I am remembering incorrectly, please accept my apologies!
    As always, another really enjoyable post!!

  12. March 14, 2009 8:50 am

    I would love a big piece of this with a nice salad. Yum!

  13. March 14, 2009 9:11 am

    Hey Amy!
    Great to see you the other night!

    I love this recipe. Do you have a whole-wheat pasta brand you prefer? I’ve been on a three-year search for one I can say I truly love and have yet to find it. I like the idea of whole-wheat but not the chalky, chewy that sometimes comes with it. Thanks! Michael

  14. March 14, 2009 5:11 pm

    I absolutely loved this cookbook. I got it from the library and after a hoarding it all to myself, I had to give it back. But I plan on buying it soon! I loved all the pizza recipes and the soup recipes looked promising as well. Who knew that cauliflower and pasta would go so well together? I bet it tasted really rich and savory.

  15. March 15, 2009 8:49 am

    Amanda, Melissa, kimberleyblue, whitney – thanks!

    ttfn300, etiak – oh, I totally agree.

    Sue Bette – so funny; the kale balances out the pasta/cheese overload, right?🙂

    carolina – yes, you remembered correctly! Sadly I have not been following basketball but woohoo! I’ll be tuning in to see them play this week! Will keep an eye out for your nephew. Go Big Red!

    Michael – hi! It was great to see you too. I know what you mean about not-so-great whole wheat pasta. My favorite to date has actually been the Whole Foods 365 brand — it’s the best by far of any I’ve tried, and I stock up when I’m back in the NY/CT/MA area — but since we don’t have any Whole Foods in the Finger Lakes, I’ve been buying the Bionaturae brand lately and think it’s pretty decent. The one I’d stay away from is Hodgson’s Mill == it’s too grainy/chalky/heavy for my taste.

    Amanda – yes, I have a whole list of recipes from the book to try – it’s a great addition to a cookbook collection!

  16. March 20, 2009 3:11 pm

    this looks like the perfect meal – you should pop over to london and cook it for me😉

  17. March 31, 2009 3:25 pm

    This looks delicious! I think I may get my bf to eat cauliflower if I use this recipe!

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