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Eric Akis: Pasta dish tops kale and peppers with golden cauliflower

Penne pasta is tossed with a kale/bell pepper mixture and topped with Parmesan cheese-crusted cauliflower florets and toasted walnuts.
Pasta rich with bits of kale, cauliflower, bell peppers, Parmesan cheese and walnuts. ERIC AKIS

For my Sunday dinner column this week, I have a flavourful pasta dish on the menu that’s stocked with vegetables and walnuts.

The pasta I used was penne — cylinder-shaped, dry pasta with ends cut at an angle that nicely stands out among the other ingredients it’s served with. You can, if desired, use another type of bite-sized pasta in the recipe, such as rotini or bow tie, if that’s what you have on hand or prefer.

The low-in-calories, fat-free vegetables I used were kale, red bell peppers, cauliflower and garlic, which jointly offer nutritious things such as vitamins A, C and K, calcium, fibre, iron and other minerals. The walnuts I used are a source of omega-3 fatty acids, protein, fibre and potassium, among other things.

Before using kale, thoroughly wash the curly leaves well in cold water, as dirt can get trapped in them. The leaves and stem of kale can be eaten, but in more mature plants, the stems and centre stalks, if overly tough, can be trimmed off and saved for stock, before using the more tender, leafy parts of the kale in the recipe.

To make my pasta dish, that kale is chopped, the bell peppers are diced, and the garlic is minced, before being cooked in olive oil in a skillet with seasonings, such as oregano and red pepper flakes. When the kale has softened, stock, which could be vegetable or chicken, depending on your preference, is mixed in and brought to a simmer.

To finish the dish, hot, cooked penne is added to the skillet with a bit of its cooking liquid. The pasta is then spooned into serving bowls and topped with toasted walnut pieces and Parmesan-crusted cauliflower florets.

To toast the walnuts, you simply heat them in a skillet a short while until lightly toasted and the flavour and aroma of the nuts are awakened. To make the cauliflower, small florets are blanched in simmering water until just tender. They are then drained and cooked in hot olive oil until rich golden. The cauliflower is then sprinkled with freshly grated Parmesan cheese, which melts and creates a cheesy crust around each floret, resulting in a tasty topping for the pasta.

Because there are a few steps required to make my pasta recipe, to ensure things go smoothly, have all the ingredients chopped, measured and ready to go before you fire up the stove and cook it.

Penne With Kale, Peppers and Parmesan-Crusted Cauliflower

Penne pasta tossed with a stock-simmered kale/bell pepper mixture, set in bowls, and tastily topped with Parmesan cheese crusted cauliflower florets and toasted walnuts.

Preparation time: 25 minutes

Cooking time: 12 to 14 minutes

Makes: two servings

16 small (about 1 1/2-inch wide) cauliflower florets

175 to 200 grams (about 2 1/4 cups) penne or other dry bite-sized pasta

2 Tbsp olive oil (divided)

1 cup packed chopped fresh green kale leaves

1/2 small to medium red bell pepper, finely diced

1 medium or large garlic clove, minced

1/2 tsp dried oregano

• pinch or 2 red pepper flakes

1 cup vegetable stock or chicken stock

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

3 Tbsp freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus some for the table

1/4 cup toasted walnut pieces (see Note)

Bring a large of pot of lightly salted water to a simmer over medium, medium-high heat.

Add the cauliflower and cook and blanch until just tender, about two minutes. Scoop cauliflower out of the pot with a slotted spoon, let drain, and then set on a plate.

Add the pasta to the pot you cooked the cauliflower in, return to a simmer and cook until just tender, 10 to 12 minutes (check package for suggested cooking time).

While the pasta cooks, place 1 Tbsp of the olive oil in 10-inch or similar sized skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the kale, bell pepper, garlic, oregano and pepper flakes and cook until kale has softened, about three minutes. Add the stock to the skillet, season with salt and pepper, bring to a simmer, simmer one minute, and then remove skillet from the heat.

Place the remaining 1 Tbsp oil in a second skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add the blanched cauliflower and cook and stir until rich golden on all sides, about two minutes.

Remove skillet from the heat, sprinkle and mix in the 3 Tbsp Parmesan cheese, and then season cauliflower with salt and pepper.

When pasta is cooked, drain it well, reserving 1/4 cup of the cooking water.

Set the skillets with the kale mixture and cauliflower back over medium heat and make warm again.

Add the drained pasta and 1/4 cup cooking water to the kale mixture and toss to combine. Divide the pasta between two shallow serving bowls, top each serving with some of the cauliflower and walnuts, and serve, with more Parmesan cheese, for grating on the pasta at the table.

Note: To toast the walnuts, place them in a skillet and set over medium heat. Heat and stir walnuts a few minutes, until lightly toasted.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.