If you’ve spent any amount of time in Italy, you have probably come across the name Cavour. I don’t think there’s a city or town of any size in the country that doesn’t have at least one piazza or via Cavour. So who was this Cavour? His name was Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, but he’s better known by his abbreviated noble title of Count of Cavour, or simply “Cavour” for short. To make a long story short, he was one of the prime figures in the Risorgimento or unification of Italy, with a long career that culminated in his briefly becoming the first Prime Minister of the newly declared Kingdom of Italy.
Relatively few people know that Cavour was also an avid buongustaio—or for us moderns, a “foodie”—and he lent his name to a good number dishes from his native Piemonte, including today’s feature: cavolfiore alla Cavour, or Cauliflower à la Cavour.
This lovely dish manages to turn a humble vegetable into something like a delicacy. You lightly boil or steam cauliflower florets, then briefly toss them in butter over the lively flame, and then gratinée them in a hot oven with a generous coating of grated parmigiano-reggiano. Finally, once out of the oven, you nap the gratinéed veg with a colorful and savory egg and anchovy sauce, vaguely reminiscent of bagna cauda, which perfectly compliments the cauliflower’s mild flavor and pale complexion.
Although it involves a few steps, cavolfiore alla Cavour is actually quite quick and easy to execute, taking perhaps 30 minutes from start to finish. And you’ll have a dish that’s both delicious and a delight for the eyes.
Though generally considered a contorno or side dish, cavolfiore alla Cavour is interesting enough to serve on its own as an antipasto or even a light vegetable based (but not vegetarian) main course. It’s a fine addition to any meal, whether with company or family. Not to mention a conversation piece for history buffs.
Serves 4-6 as a side
- 1 head of cauliflower
- A good knob of butter (about 25g/1 oz)
- freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano, q.b.
For the sauce:
- 2-3 eggs, hard boiled and finely chopped
- 4-6 anchovy fillets, finely chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley, finely minced
- 50g (2 oz) butter
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon (or to taste)
- salt, to taste
Prepping and cooking the cauliflower
Trim the cauliflower of its leaves and hard stem, but the rest into flowerets.
Boiled or better steam the cauliflower in well salted water until crisp-tender.
Melt a knob of butter in a skillet over gentle heat, add the flowerets sauté for a minute or two until the cauliflower is well impregnated with the butter, seasoning lightly,
Transfer the cauliflower to a baking dish. Drizzle the butter in the skillet over the flowerets and then dust them with a generous coating of grated cheese. Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and has lightly browned.
Take out of the oven and keep warm.
Preparing the Egg and Anchovy Sauce
Meanwhile, make your sauce. Hard boil the eggs by placing them in a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, let boil for a minute. Then turn off the heat and cover. Let them sit for 9 minutes.
Drain the eggs and run them under cold water. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel the eggs.
Chop the hard boiled eggs finely and add them to a mixing bowl. Add the chopped anchovy and minced parsley.
Right before you’re ready to serve, melt the butter gently, then pour it into the mixing bowl with the other sauce ingredients. Drizzle with a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon. Mix everything together briefly and gingerly, taking care not to mash the bits of egg yolk. Taste and, if needed, season with salt.
Saucing and serving
Nap the gratinéed cauliflower with the sauce and serve.
The recipe for cavolfiore alla Cavour has few real pitfalls. Mainly, you need to be careful about cooking the cauliflower. The cauliflower should be fully tender by the end, but not mushy. And try to avoid the flowerets breaking up. Not the end of the world, but the dish is so much more attractive if the flowerets remain intact. First and foremost, don’t overdo the initial boiling/steaming or the flowerets will break apart. Remove them when they’re just slightly underdone since they will cook further, first as they are tossed with the butter in a skillet, then baked in the oven.
Also for looks, remember to serve the flowerets with their “pretty” side up. And don’t drown them in the sauce. Much of the visual charm of the dish lies interplay of the pale vegetable with the lively colors of the sauce. Extra sauce can always be placed around the sides or served separately.
You should take care not to overmix the sauce as noted in the recipe. And if you can, do make the sauce at the last minute, as the melted butter tends to congeal at room temperature. Season it carefully, too. The anchovies are quite savory, of course, but you may still find it needs a bit of salt.
You can serve cavolfiore alla Cavour by either napping individual plated servings with the sauce as pictured here, which provides a more formal presentation or just nap the cauliflower while still in its baking dish and serve it ‘family style’.
The recipe for cavolfiore alla Cavour doesn’t admit major variations. The most notable one, perhaps, is replacing the butter in the sauce with olive oil. I personally really like the sweetness that the butter lends to the dish, but olive oil is a good idea if you want to make the dish ahead and serve it at room temperature. The amount of lemon can also vary according to taste, from a few drops (my preference) to the juice of whole lemon.
Other variations are pretty subtle. In one, the entirety of the butter is gently melted, with a portion used to nap the boiled or steamed flowerets in the baking dish—you skip the sautéing—and you add the rest to the sauce. Some recipes call for baking in a hot oven (200C/400F) for only 5 minutes or so.
You can pre-boil/steam the cauliflower and of course the eggs as well. After that, you can whip up the dish in just 10-15 minutes. As noted, if you make the sauce with olive oil, you can make the whole dish ahead and serve it at room temperature.
If you want to serve cavolfiore alla Cavour warm, prepare the sauce and serve at the last moment since the butter in the sauce tends to congeal, and the sauce doesn’t take well to reheating. if you really must, you can keep the sauce warm at say, 100C/200F for a few minutes.
Who was Cavour?
Camillo Paolo Filippo Giulio Benso, Count of Cavour, Isolabella and Leri, was one of the principal leaders in the struggle for the unification of Italy. Through his newspaper Il Risorgimento, he became one of the leading early voices for Italian independence, as well as promoter of economic and social reforms. His advocacy eventually came to the attention of King Vittorio Emmanuele of Piedmont-Sardinia, who named Cavour as his prime minister.
In that role, Cavour forged a critical alliance with Napoleon III in the Second War for Italian Independence against Austria. Their victory resulted in Piedmont-Sardinia annexing much of northern Italy. Once Garibaldi defeated the Kingdom of the Two Sicilians and southern Italy was also brought under his rule, the Kingdom of Italy was declared in 1861 with Vittorio Emmanuele as its king. Cavour became the first prime minister of the new kingdom, but he served for just three months. He fell victim to illness, probably malaria brought on by overwork, and died at the age of 50. Sadly, he didn’t live to see the complete unification of the country only a few years later with the annexation of the Veneto from Austria in 1866 and the capture of Rome in 1870.
Cavour the buongustaio
As prime minister of Piedmont-Sardinia and then Italy, Cavour promoted innovations in agriculture, with a special interest in the growing of rice—a staple of his native Piemonte—and grapes for wine. He was said to enjoy sophisticated but strongly flavored dishes. He loved risotto, agnolotti and the unusual Piedmontese dish called la finanziera. (A dish I’ve wanted to prepare and post about for the longest time, but it’s nearly impossible to find the ingredients here, which include veal sweetbreads and vertebrae and chicken combs.)
Piemontese cookery includes a number of dishes named after Cavour. Besides this one, there’s agnolotti alla Cavour, a rice timbale called pasticcio di riso alla moda Cavour, and garnishes for veal scallops and roast meats. There were also several dishes named “alla Cavour” in the influential 1904 cookbook Il Gastronomo moderno, including a soup, a rice dish, a tête de veau, a capon dish, a lemon gelato and a rice pudding.
Today cavolfiore alla Cavour is perhaps the best known of these alla Cavour dishes. And even though I haven’t been able to find any evidence he ever actually ate it, the dish is certainly a good example of the kind of elegant yet intensely flavorful dish he would have enjoyed.
Cavolfiore alla Cavour
- 1 head cauliflower cut into flowerets
- A good knob of butter about 25g (1 oz)
- freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano q.b.
For the sauce
- 2-3 eggs hard boiled and finely chopped
- 4-6 anchovy fillets finely chopped
- A few sprigs of parsley finely minced
- 50g 2 oz butter
- A few drops of freshly squeezed lemon or to taste
- salt to taste
Prepping and cooking the cauliflower
- Trim the cauliflower of its leaves and hard stem, but the rest into flowerets.
- Boiled or better steam the cauliflower in well salted water until crisp-tender.
- Melt a knob of butter in a skillet over gentle heat, add the flowerets sauté for a minute or two until the cauliflower is well impregnated with the butter, seasoning lightly,
- Transfer the cauliflower to a baking dish. Drizzle the butter in the skillet over the flowerets and then dust them with a generous coating of grated cheese. Bake in a moderate (180C/350F) oven for about 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese has melted and has lightly browned.
- Take out of the oven and keep warm.
Preparing the egg and anchovy sauce
- Meanwhile, make your sauce. Hard boil the eggs by placing them in a pot with enough water to cover. Bring to a boil, let boil for a minute. Then turn off the heat and cover. Let them sit for 9 minutes.
- Drain the eggs and run them under cold water. As soon as they are cool enough to handle, peel the eggs.
- Chop the hard boiled eggs finely and add them to a mixing bowl. Add the chopped anchovy and minced parsley.
- Right before you're ready to serve, melt the butter gently, then pour it into the mixing bowl with the other sauce ingredients. Drizzle with a few drops of freshly squeezed lemon. Mix everything together briefly and gingerly, taking care not to mash the bits of egg yolk. Taste and, if needed, season with salt.
Saucing and Serving
- Nap the gratinéed cauliflower with the sauce and serve.