Contorni – Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Mushrooms, Anchovies and Tomatoes

Roasted Cauliflower-9567

Vegetables never ranked high in my juvenile estimation, and cauliflower occupied a particularly low rung on the ladder, beneath broccoli but definitely above rutabegas.  Everybody behaved as though cauliflower were a deviant vegetable, safely edible only after an extended baptism in a volcanic bath to exorcise its cruciferous demons.  This reduced it to a watery, insipid mess, the kind of thing found in ANGELA’S ASHES or PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG MAN, on the PRIVATION section of the menu.  Like orange juice in small glasses, it was one of those things I immediately abandoned as soon as I was on my own.  Jody reintroduced me to it, Italian style, after we began living together, shocking me with how good it was.  For years our favorite way of preparing it was to roast it with olive oil, often with a bit of flash like pine nuts, a few currents or golden raisins and a pinch of hot red pepper flakes.  In recent years we’ve liked it with anchovies, and then Jody came along with this full-throated southern Italian approach–Roasted Whole Cauliflower with Mushrooms, Anchovies and Tomatoes.  If this dish doesn’t make a convert of you you haven’t got a tongue in your head.

Side dishes in an Italian meal, usually vegetables, are called contorni, the plural of contorno, which in other contexts means the outline or shape of something.  Ergo,  vegetables lend shape and definition to a meal beyond the meat or fish at its center.  Contorni may accompany a main dish, act as a separate vegetable course preceding the main course, or be included with the antipasti.  Part of this cauliflower’s appeal for me is it’s unabashed retro presentation.  You expect it to appear in the great restaurant film BIG NIGHT, the head of cauliflower expertly divided at table and spooned on to diners’ plates by a black-jacketed Stanley Tucci as Volaré fills the room.  Enjoy.  Ken

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Whole Roasted Cauliflower with

Mushrooms, Anchovies and Tomatoes


  • 1 head cauliflower, about 1½ pounds
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ cup red onion, chopped into ¼-inch dice
  • ¾ pound mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and cut into ½-inch slices
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • ½ cup Marsala or sherry
  • 2 cups tomato puree
  • 4 anchovy filletes, rinsed and chopped
  • ½ teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 2 tablespoons chopped basil
  • ¾ cup freshly grated parmesan cheese


  1. Preheat oven to 300ºF.
  2. Wash the cauliflower and remove the outer leaves.  Using a melon baller, remove the center of the core, leaving the cauliflower intact.  Brush all over with olive oil and then season all over with salt and pepper.
  3. Reserve 2 tablespoons of the extra virgin olive oil.  In a medium ovenproof sauté pan, heat the remaining oil over medium heat.  Add the onions and cook 4 minutes.  Add the mushrooms, season with salt and pepper, cover and cook 3 minutes.  Add the garlic and cook 1 minute.  Add the Marsala or sherry, tomato puree, anchovies, pepper flakes and bay leaf and bring to a boil.  Remove from the heat.
  4. Set the cauliflower  upright on its core in the pan with the mushrooms-tomato sauce, cover with foil and bake 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven, baste with the mushroom mixture, recover and continue to bake another 30 minutes,  Remove the foil, turn the heat to 450ºF and roast 30 minutes or until golden.
  5. Transfer the cauliflower to a platter.  Add the basil to the mushroom sauce and then spoon around the cauliflower.  Drizzle with 1 – 2 tablespoons of the evoo.  Sprinkle with cheese.
  6. To serve, break the cauliflower into wedges and serve with a spoonful of sauce.

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My grandmother, Gammy, taught me to love cauliflower 100 years before it was cool.  At the time, there were 2 popular ways to prepare it: raw, with some goopy dip as a crudite; or boiled and boring.  Gammy did neither.  She blanched the cauliflower, then baked it in a casserole with béchamel sauce, sautéed mushrooms and onions, and topped with crispy breadcrumbs.  I came across no better recipe until I learned from the Italians to simply toss cauliflower pieces in olive oil with salt and pepper and roast it until caramelized and nutty.

And now… who knew that whole roasted cauliflower would be elevated to center stage?  It’s everywhere.  Cauliflower can be a bit tricky roasted whole–if the central stem is cooked through, the exterior florets are often overdone.  If you cook it just to the point where the florets are done, then the core will be tough.  Blanching helps even things out, but adds a step.  To roast it evenly without first blanching, core the stems with a melon baller (see the photos).  Roast, covered, at a low temperature for two-thirds of the cooking, then finish cooking uncovered at a high temperature.  

You could serve this as a first course, followed by grilled fish or lamb.  But in a break with tradition, you could also make it the center of a veggie-centric meal.  All you need is a grain and a salad.  

59 thoughts

  1. Looks absolutely delicious. Would make this without anchovies, though, as I don’t eat seafood. Great use of the melon peeler, too! I’ve used mine for lots of kitchen emergencies but never thought using it to clean a cauliflower.

    • The trick with the melon baller and stem was knew to me too! I’d never seen it until I started photographing Jody and I asked her what she was doing. Pretty neat. If you don’t use the anchovies, but sure to taste and season–it will need more salt. Ken

  2. Looks fabulous. Even the next generation in our house loves cauliflower, and this is yet another (and more interesting) way to prepare it than my usual. A meal in itself–just add some pasta perhaps…..

    • Oh, yes. How about farro? As I’m writing this I’m standing in my brother’s San Antonio kitchen looking at a bag of “quick-cook” farro–10 minutes cooking time, 5 minute rest after. Probably pearled to within an inch of its life, but I’m going to bring a bag back with me to see. Enjoy the cauliflower. Ken

  3. I think this is the dish the father and son should eat to console themselves in the Bicycle Thieves. You make cauliflower suddenly beautiful and prize-worthy. I’ve always secretly thought it was a splendid vegetable but you have elevated it to near-mythic proportions here. Cauliflower cheese done right is also the ultimate comfort food, don’t you think? Or am I being too British. Sophie

    • Ha! Sophie, I knew I could count on you to come back with a cinematic rejoinder. I’ve never had cauliflower cheese–is that baked cauliflower with a ton of cheese melted over it? Unofrtunately, I’m afraid I could get into that a bit more than is probably healthy for me. Ken

    • I would have bet that you guys had a couple of rows of cauliflower! Interestingly, yesterday I had lunch with my brother in a great San Antonio restaurant called CURED–(haha)–that specializes in, as you might imagine, all kinds of cured meat. We order a platter of various things and one of the nice things they’d done is accompany it with TWO different kinds of pickled cauliflower, which of course only made you want to dig even deeper into that jar of pork rillettes. Ken

  4. Great recipe! I’ve tried making whole roasted cauliflower before and failed (the core was really tough). Thanks to Jody’s instructions, I will now be able to try again. The sauce sounds delicious too!

    • Ah, the versatile melon baller. We preparared three more whole cauliflower last night. It’s remarkable how thinning the central core makes the cooking it whole so much less problematic. Thanks! Ken

  5. That looks stunning. And yes, boiled cauliflower is so sad, limp, bland, and it doesn’t have to be. I like the idea of this as a showpiece entree with the guests attacking the whole cauliflower with knives. :-)

    • Amusing image. Like something out of The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, Her Lover–all paleolithic avidity and red sauce. It is fun–and you find yourself making whole cauliflower as a matter of course, even if you don’t make a real sauce to accompany it. Thanks. Ken

    • What a great idea! Let’s see:

      Swiss Chard Tart – Manon of the Spring

      Preserved Lemons – Casablanca

      Cabbage Stuffed with Farro – Open City

      Deep-Fried Olives – La Dolce Vita

      Butterscotch Custard – Mrs. Doubtfire


  6. Is it merely coincidence… Hi Jody and Ken, Headed away from home tomorrow and only had cauliflower, mushrooms and onion in the fridge! So,what at great thing – we made the recipe tonight and are so pleased with it. Thank you!! – Pat and Barb

    • I don’t know why your comment didn’t post right away–sorry about that. Hope you guys are enjoyed some well-deserved down time from the clam-raising business. I think we need to put another visit to your grant on the calendar. Anyway, glad you had all the fixings–and liked the result! Enjoy your trip. Ken

  7. If there was ever a reason for me to commit space to growing cauliflowers it is this recipe! I have never whole roasted a cauli, and coring the centre is clever. A lovely and delicious centrepiece to the dinner table.
    I’ll add you to Ottolenghi as ‘Cauliflower revival champions’ :)

    • Oh, now you’ve got me thinking–I haven’t tried any of their cauliflower recipes yet. Thanks for the recommendation. We made another three for a ten-person dinner party last night, and they do cause 1) Lots of ooh-and-aahhing, and 2) A similar number of admissions that, “I’ve never had the courage to try cooking one whole.” Ken

  8. Great literary references… This vegetable preparation is nothing but gorgeous in texture, flavor and prose. I also enjoyed hearing about a special significance of cauliflower from a familial perspective. Nothing like a lovely food memory. Oh, and the organization of the first batch of photos is retro and symmetric – very visually appealing. I can’t wait to try this as a first course or side dish (I am a reluctant vegetarian, if at all!). The deep richness from anchovies sold the dish to me. Well-done, as always, Jody and Ken.

    • Thank you, Shanna. For the last week I’ve been in Texas, where I ate more meat in 5 days than I did for the previous six here. Beef ribs… well, best not to admit one’s weaknesses. I would be a very reluctant vegetarian–because I’d find it hard to give up duck and seafood, not meat–but for all the obvious reasons, I’m always on the prowl for new ways to increase the variety and flavor of the vegetables we eat. Anchovies are good wherever they land. Thanks for the kind words about the photos. Ken

      • Ken, Do keep us posted on the ways you find to increase the variety of flavors (and textures!) in the veggies (and fruits!) you prepare. I have very fond memories of great beef ribs in Austin during my undergraduate years! Tender meat, falling of the bone, juicy and sweet – yes, please. Yes, you will need a meat-tox after your trip! :-)

    • What–Never gone for the round of OMG’s at the table? Well, step right up–you’ve come to the right place. It really is fun and more or less foolproof, IF you address the issue with the core. Grab a melon baller and give it a shot. Thanks for the comment. Ken

  9. Looks absolutely delicious. I always have wanted to like all those whole roasted cauliflower dishes, but they never seem to turn out quite right for the reason you note. Hooray for the melon baller!

  10. Pingback: A writing process blog frolic, and a favourites list | Saucy gander

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