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Cauliflower parmesan pasta recipe at

Easy Skillet Pasta for a Winter Weeknight

Turn a head of cauliflower into an unexpected weeknight supper by blending cheese with pasta water for an instant sauce.

I’m a meal planner by habit. Every week I make a list of dinners for Monday-Sunday and stick it on the fridge.

There is usually a soup, like minestrone, and a family favorite, like tostadas. Items I can make ahead or whip up at the last minute when everyone is coming and going.

But first, I forage through the pantry and freezer to see what I’ve overlooked. Recently, I found I’d neglected a head of cauliflower.

The Possibilities of Cauliflower

Oh, the possibilities, now that we’re all in love with this winter white brassica. I could make a vegetable curry or my version of cauliflower rice.

Cauliflower parmesan pasta recipe at

Instead I wrote “cauliflower penne” into the space typically slotted for a weeknight pasta. {Usually it’s pesto, the girls’ fave.}

I love well-roasted cauliflower florets. And I knew I wanted to develop some of those flavors from browning before tossing it with the pasta.

Skillet Pasta Technique

So, I pulled out my skillet and sauteed a rough chop of cauliflower in olive oil while the pasta water came to a boil.

To get good browning, I knew I had to use fairly high heat and leave the cauliflower undisturbed. That gave me all the time I needed to sliced some onion and garlic and grate the cheese.

Cauliflower parmesan pasta recipe at

Once the cauliflower was golden in spots and seasoned to my liking, it was just two steps to an out-of-the-ordinary skillet pasta dinner: 

  • A half cup of pasta water stirred in with the pasta to to make a sauce.
  • Parmesan cheese and butter to make it creamy.

This skillet pasta technique is one you can use with many types of vegetables you forage from your own pantry or refrigerator, like winter squash, cabbage or broccoli {maybe with a little bacon?}.

Penne is a great size and shape pasta to catch the sauce and fit on a fork.

But there are many other shapes that work here, like ziti, rigatoni or cavatappi. Only the boiling times will vary a bit.

Cauliflower parmesan pasta recipe at

With Pasta Water, Watch the Salt

Typically, I heavily salt the water when cooking pasta for flavor. But when I used that pasta water to make into the pasta sauce, it was way way way too salty!

Lesson learned. Now, I’ve lightened up on the salt in the pasta water whenever I make a skillet pasta like this.

So, instead of two-plus tablespoons of salt in the pot, I add just one tablespoon for about 4 quarts of water. {There’s no need to measure precisely, by the way. This is just a guideline.}

That way once it reduces and combines with the parmesan, it is fully flavored to a T. Just what’s needed for a weeknight skillet pasta.

Just remember: Pasta water + parmesan = sauce.


and become a forager

What’s on your midweek meal plan? Let me know in the comments below or tag a photo #lynnesforage on Instagram or Facebook.

Cauliflower Parmesan Penne

Here's an example of how you can turn a single vegetable and penne into a skillet pasta for any night of the week. The sauce is a combination of pasta water plus parmesan with an optional dab of butter and cream and is so easy.
Course Main Course
Cuisine Italian
Keyword skillet pasta
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Total Time 30 minutes
Servings 4 people
Author Lynne Curry


  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small head cauliflower, very roughly chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1 small red onion, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, very thinly sliced
  • pinch red pepper flakes, or more to taste
  • 12 ounces penne
  • 1/4 cup heavy cream or half and half optional
  • 1 1/2 cups finely grated parmesan
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley


  • Bring 4 quarts of water to a boil and add 1 tablespoon salt so that the pasta water is seasoned but will not make your finished skillet pasta over-salted.
  • Meanwhile, heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat and when it shimmers, add the cauliflower, salt and pepper and stir together. Let the cauliflower cook undisturbed so that it browns. You'll hear it sizzling but resist turning it for at least 5 minutes. Stir once or twice until most of cauliflower is nicely browned, about 10 minutes total.
  • Cook the pasta until it is just tender to the bite since it will cook a bit more in the sauce. Reserve 1 cup of the pasta water and drain the pasta.
  • Add the onion, garlic and red chili flakes and cook until the onion becomes limp and the garlic is fragrant, about 2 minutes. Reduce the heat to low.
  • Add the pasta to the skillet along with about 1/2 cup of the reserved pasta water, the cream, if using, and parmesan. Stir well to coat the penne with this light sauce. 
  • Taste the pasta for seasoning before serving, adding additional pasta water as necessary to keep it slick, and garnish with the parsley.


  1. norma

    Made this it turned out delicious.

    1. Love to hear it, Norma!

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