Let’s face it, I always have a craving for buffalo wings. They’re spicy, they’re fatty, they make my face hurt, they are a huge mess to eat. And they’re so inextricably tied to atmosphere – game day, out with friends and family, having a boisterous fun time. On top of that, I lived the first 10 years of my life in Buffalo, NY, so one might say they’re my native food. The only thing not to like is that they’re so bad for you – fried meat and no vegetables (the celery doesn’t count)! I have a hard time justifying eating them when it’s not a special occasion. To satisfy these competing desires, I developed this pasta recipe to try to get the feel of buffalo wings on a weeknight. Does it look like buffalo wings? Definitely not. Does it taste like buffalo wings? Let’s find out…
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The components of this dish are CONFINED by my original goal, which is to make something that satisfies my craving for buffalo wings, but is healthy enough for a weekday meal. For that reason, the decisions that I had to make were not too difficult:
The sauce – I started designing my pasta dish by ADAPTING this buffalo sauce recipe. To temper the spice and the intensity of the buffalo flavor, I added milk (which goes with spicy food and mutes the heat) and tomato sauce, which I thought would help maintain the buffalo wing color. Reading the recipe and thinking about the wings I’ve had over the years, I thought this sauce would probably be too thin on it’s own for a pasta sauce. To thicken it, I turned to the classic sauce and gravy thickening agent, a roux.
A roux is just a combination of flour and fat. The flour provides the thickening and the fat helps smooth the flour so it doesn’t create lumps. The ratio of fat to flour in a roux can be varied, but the amount of flour relative to your final sauce volume is very important for the thickness of the sauce. A quick perusal of the internet found that fat: flour can range from 1:0.5 to 1:2 (by volume). This will definitely change the thickness of the roux, but any extra liquid will be incorporated into your final sauce anyway. To figure out the amount of roux to make, a good rule of thumb is 2 Tbsp flour per 2 cups of liquid (milk, cream, stock, etc) will make a medium sauce that resembles boxed macaroni and cheese, while less flour will make a thin sauce that could be drizzled over steak or fish, and more flour will make a thick sauce that might be used in a baked pasta.
It’s important to cook the roux for a bit before adding it to sauces so that the flour breaks down and no longer tastes raw. After that point, the length of cooking the roux changes the color and flavor profile from white (3-5 min cooking, most thickening, used for bechamel), to blond (6-7 min cooking, ivory color and nutty aroma, used in cream soups), to brown (15-20 min cooking, least thickening, dark brown, strong nutty flavor, used in Cajun cooking).
The additions – I wanted this pasta to be healthy, which means adding vegetables to replace the heft of the chicken. Buffalo cauliflower is already a common vegetarian dish, so that was a no-brainer to COMBINE. In addition, I chose eggplant because it was plentiful at the market and I’m trying to cook with it more to understand it better. The blue cheese was mandatory to bring that true buffalo wing flavor together.
Buffalo Cauliflower Pasta
Makes 6 servings
- 1 pound pasta, I used cavatappi because I think the ridges hold smooth sauces really well
- 1 1/4 pound eggplant, peeled and cut into 1 inch cubes
- 1.5 pounds cauliflower head, cut into ~1 inch florets
- 4 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
- 2 Tbsp all purpose flour
- 2/3 cup Franks Red Hot Original sauce, or some other pepper sauce
- 1.5 Tbsp white vinegar
- 1/4 tsp Worcestershire sauce
- 1/2 cup whole milk
- 1/2 cup tomato sauce
- 1/8 tsp garlic powder
- (cayenne pepper to taste) I didn’t add any
- 3/4 cup blue cheese, crumbled
- Toss eggplant with a generous amount of salt and leave in a colander to drain for 30 minutes
- Preheat oven to 450°F
- Pat eggplant dry with paper towels and toss with 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil and 1/2 tsp pepper
- Toss cauliflower with 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil, 1/2 tsp kosher salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper
- Spread eggplant and cauliflower on a baking sheet and roast until tender and slightly charred, 40-45 minutes. Toss and rotate pans after 30 minutes.
- Cook the pasta according to package directions, save 1 cup of the cooking water
- Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat
- Whisk in the flour until smooth, 1 minute
- Whisk in the hot sauce, vinegar, Worcestershire, milk, tomato sauce, and garlic powder and simmer 5 minutes
- When pasta is cooked, toss with sauce
- Fold in cauliflower, eggplant, and blue cheese
- Add pasta cooking water to thicken to desired consistency and serve. Don’t forget my leftover pasta trick for storage!
Pretty spicy (for me) but not unbearable. The eggplant was very good – it basically melted into the sauce and provided lusciousness. Overall this moderately scratched the itch for buffalo wings.
For my tastes, this is still a lot of pasta and could use some more interest. Wilting spinach would probably be a good addition, and cilantro could provide some additional color. I would add more cauliflower next time. Friends who tried it suggested more buffalo sauce (they wanted it spicy), not cooking the eggplant so much to retain the texture, and trying it with zucchini noodles.
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