Pancetta is very similar to bacon. But it is cut very thin, it isn’t smoked, and it has a much sweeter flavor. I think it is very versatile and fun. It is perfect in this dish, which I didn’t want to be overwhelmed by meat. After all, it is a side dish. But the pancetta lends a savory and substantial quality that the dish lacks alone.
That is not to say that roasted cauliflower is lacking in any way all by itself. In fact, I love unadorned roasted cauliflower. Roasting is easy, and it tends to concentrate the flavors in a way that steaming does not. I chose to wrap only a portion of the cauliflower with pancetta. A bite with and a bite without is a very nice ratio. Careful cutting of the cauliflower yields large flat slices that roast beautifully and fairly quickly. Smaller chunks are perfect for wrapping because the pancetta goes all the way around and holds on to itself. I laid a few slices of pancetta on the slabs of cauliflower, and while they impart a great flavor, they do shrink up a bit. The pancetta on the smaller pieces is wrapped around sage leaves. Sage and cauliflower are wonderful together. One head of cauliflower yields four servings.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Carefully trim the cauliflower, leaving as much of the stem intact as possible. The stem holds the big pieces together. Slice the head in half from top to bottom. Using a long and sharp knife, cut as many half inch slices as you can from the middle until it starts coming apart. Lay the large slices carefully in a pan with raised sides which you have lightly coated with olive oil. Continue to slice flat pieces off of the remaining chunks to the extent possible. Place all of the cauliflower into the roasting pan. Brush the tops of the cauliflower with olive oil. Season with a little bit of salt and pepper, bearing in mind that the pancetta to be used later is quite salty. Roast in a 400 degree oven for 25 minutes, turning once with a spatula at about 15 minutes.
Remove the roasting pan and let the cauliflower sit until it is just cool enough to handle. Choose the 8 or so most substantial smaller pieces and lay one half of a sage leaf on top of them. Then wrap each of these pieces with a piece of pancetta. Some of the pieces will fall apart a little…just wrap it up. Lay any extra pieces of pancetta over the larger slabs of cauliflower. Return the roasting pan to the oven and allow it to cook for another 10 to 15 minutes, or until the pancetta is browned and crispy.
Should the pancetta still look a bit underdone at the end of 15 minutes, broil it for about 1 to 2 minutes to crisp the tops. This is a better plan than letting the cauliflower roast further and lose its bite altogether. But, as I always caution, beware of the broiler. Don’t walk away or you, if you are anything like me, will forget it and return to ashes.
Remove from the oven and serve.
As I made these, I couldn’t help but think that they would also make a very lovely little appetizer. I can’t imagine whether they would be best alone or with some kind of a dip, but it is a lovely little bite. Of course, if you did that you would want to break all of the pieces into smaller florets.