Anchovies, saffron, raisins, and pine nuts are classic ingredients in Sicilian cuisine, and although combining them may sound a bit unusual, the flavors are subtle and blend together beautifully.
Tips for Making This Recipe
What makes this recipe so delicious is the layering of its unique flavors. To achieve that successfully, a few of the ingredients need to be treated with a little extra care.
- Steep the saffron and plump the raisins: In a dish with a short cooking time like this one, getting the saffron to release its full flavor requires an extra step. We find it easiest to ladle off a little of the pasta water once it starts to simmer and use it to both steep the crushed saffron threads and rehydrate the raisins. The printable recipe below has the details.
- Toast the pine nuts: Pine nuts (pignoli) have a rich, buttery flavor that is greatly enhanced with a little bit of toasting. The easiest (and most reliable) way to toast pine nuts is in a dry pan over medium heat. It only takes about 1-1/2 minutes, but you can’t walk away because pine nuts can burn very easily. You need to keep shaking the pan to keep them moving.
- Don’t leave out the anchovies: As with all pasta dishes, the key to success is the flavor of the sauce. This sauce starts with red onion and garlic sautéed in olive oil. Chopped anchovy fillets are added once the onion is lightly caramelized. They will literally “melt” into the onion and garlic mixture as they cook, providing a fabulously rich but not fishy umami quality that serves as the flavor base of this dish.
- Keep the cooking time brief: Once you’ve created the base for the sauce, stir in the tomatoes, raisins, and saffron (including the water the saffron was steeped in), and simmer for just a few minutes while the pasta cooks. This brief simmer preserves the individual flavors of the ingredients while blending them just enough to create a sauce to coat the pasta.
- Add the finishing touches: Once the pasta is cooked, combine the sauce with the cauliflower, add chopped flat leaf parsley for a bit of fresh flavor and color, and plate individual servings. Top with a little freshly ground black pepper and grated cheese. For the cheese, we recommend Pecorino, an Italian sheep’s milk cheese, or Parmigiano-Reggiano. Both have intense, nutty flavors that will complement the other ingredients in this dish without overpowering them.
Versions and Variations
It’s worth noting that the most authentic Sicilian versions of this dish do not call for any tomatoes. Instead, they use either a combination of broth and additional olive oil or just a larger quantity of olive oil in order to coat the pasta and cauliflower.
There are also variations that use broccoli or broccolini instead of cauliflower and some that use sardines instead of anchovies. If you’ve tried any of these versions, we’d love to hear about them, so please leave a comment below.
Sicilian Pasta with Cauliflower and Saffron
- 10 ounces pasta, shells, rotini, or penne
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed saffron threads
- 1/4 cup golden raisins
- 1/4 cup pine nuts
- 1 medium head cauliflower
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- Olive oil
- 1/2 medium red onion, thinly sliced
- 4 anchovy fillets, rinsed and finely chopped
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- 1 cup diced tomatoes, with their juices
- 2 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, chopped
- Pecorino or Parmigiano-Reggiano for grating
- Put a large pot of salted water on to boil for the pasta.
- Once the water starts to simmer, ladle off about a half cup and divide it between two small prep bowls. Add the saffron to one and the golden raisins to the other and set them aside. Steeping saffron in hot water allows its flavor to develop more fully. Soaking the raisins will rehydrate them, making them sweeter and more tender.
- Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat and add the pine nuts. Shake the pan continuously over the heat until the nuts are lightly toasted, 1/2 to 1 minute. Watch carefully as pine nuts burn very easily. Transfer to a small bowl and set aside.
- Core the cauliflower, separate it into florets, and add them to the sauté pan. Season with salt and pepper and add 1/2-inch water to the pan.
- Place the pan over medium-high heat, cover and simmer until the cauliflower is tender when pierced with a knife, 7 to 10 minutes. Transfer the cauliflower to a plate and set aside.
- Wipe the pan dry, add a little olive oil and put it back on the stove over medium heat. Separate the onion into rings and sauté over medium heat until lightly caramelized, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 minute longer.
- Add the anchovies and continue cooking, stirring often, until they have broken down and combined with the garlic and onion, 3 to 4 minutes more.
- Stir in the tomatoes and the saffron along with its steeping liquid. Drain the raisins and add them as well. Cover, reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer gently while you cook and drain the pasta, 8 to 9 minutes.
- Return the cauliflower florets to the tomato sauce, heat for 1 minute, then add the pine nuts and parsley and combine with the pasta.
- Plate individual servings and top with grated cheese.
- Steeping the saffron
- Plumping the raisins
- Toasting the pine nuts