Baked Ziti with Cauliflower and Cheese

This is a repost from my column in Yakima Magazine. I wrote this fall 2014 and while my oldest is now halfway through first grade and I can gratefully say we’ve all come a long way since those weary first weeks of kindergarten, this particular article still makes me smile.

My oldest started kindergarten this fall. And from the very first day my son was positive, enthusiastic and brave. He loves it all: from recess to pizza hot lunch to his teacher to P.E. Kindergarten looks good on him.

Me? Well, I was a different story. There were tears. I was nervous and a little sad. The truth is, my mama heart just felt a little raw over the whole thing. Kindergarten is this wonderful beginning and a bittersweet ending all tangled up together. After committing the last nearly six years to be at home with him and his younger siblings, I missed him tremendously while he was away at school. But his confident happy (usually sweaty and very tired) face at the end of the day reminds me again and again that this school thing is exactly the right fit for him…and us.

Needless to say, our fall has been a season of transition for our family. And as food so often does, it comforts while it nourishes and that’s exactly what this cheesy decadent pasta dish does. It’s a big bowl of comfort, perfect for cold winter evenings. It’s also an easy dish to double or triple to give to friends or neighbors who might need a little comfort themselves.

Baked Pasta and Cauliflower with Cheese

  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3 cups cold milk
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 16 ounces Smoked gouda, grated (Dubliner, extra sharp cheddar is an excellent alternative)
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • Pepper
  • Salt
  • 1 pound pasta (ziti/rigatoni/shells…whatever you like or have on hand)
  • 1 head cauliflower, cut into florets, florets sliced into bite size pieces
  • 4 slices center cut bacon, cooked, cooled and crumbled
  • 4 ounces shredded parmesan cheese (for sprinkling at the end)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh parsley, chopped

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and butter a 13 x 9 inch baking dish.

Boil pasta in a heavily salted pot of rapidly boiling water until almost tender. Add the cauliflower to the pasta and cook until cauliflower is barely tender, about 4 minutes. Drain very well and set aside while you make the cheese sauce.

Melt 2 tablespoons butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the onion and sauté until translucent. Stir in garlic. Add the flour and continue stirring for one minute. Add the milk all at once along with the bay leaf. Cook, whisking the mixture until it comes to a boil and thickens, about 5-8 minutes. Add the cheeses, turn the heat to low and simmer until melted. Stir in salt, cayenne and nutmeg. Remove the bay leaf and season with pepper to taste. Stir drained pasta and cauliflower into the cheese sauce.

Transfer the pasta mixture to the baking dish. Sprinkle with crumbled bacon, fresh parsley and parmesan cheese. Sprinkle with salt. Cover with foil and bake for 20 minutes. Uncover the last five minutes to let the edges brown slightly and make sure the cheese is boiling.

 

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