Penne tre colori: Something wonderful from almost nothing

Penne tre colori, originally uploaded by Foodwoolf.

Desperation inspires an act of innovation

Whenever my refrigerator is empty, I see an opportunity to make something from nothing. Like the generations of women before me that created culinary masterpieces from scraps, I see possibilities in my limited larder.

With nothing but a container of leftover penne, a head of purple cauliflower, and a handful of steadily wilting radishes to inspire me, I let the ingredients dictate my recipe.

Never having sautéed a radish before, I heavily salted the vegetable (as I do when serving it raw on buttered bread), sliced it in thin rounds, and sautéed it in butter. I was delighted to discover that cooking mellowed the radishes’ sharp bite and offered a lovely earthiness and delightful color to the simple dish. The cauliflower’s sweetness was coaxed from a simple sauté and a generous dose of salt and pepper.

This dish is not only simple but incredibly beautiful and satisfying; it will be a standard in my cooking repertoire, regardless of the status of my larder.

Penne tre colori

Penne Tre colori
Serves 2

1 head of purple cauliflower (regular cauliflower will do, but it won’t look as pretty!)
1 small bunch of breakfast radishes (red, pink and white radish), thinly sliced rounds
3 tbsp olive oil
1 clove of garlic
½ bag of penne pasta (cooked)
1 tbsp butter
Sea salt
Finishing olive oil (about 1 tbsp)
pinch of chopped tarragon

Clean the cauliflower, removing outer leaves (if there are any) and the bottom of the stem, leaving at least 2 inches of the cauliflower’s trunk. Slice the cauliflower vertically from stem to florets, about ¼ inch slices. Don’t worry if the florets break apart.

Slice the radishes in uniformly thin (1/8-inch) slices.

Heat a small sauté pan over medium high heat with 2-½ tbsp of olive oil. Using the back of your knife, bruise the clove of garlic. Add to pan, let cook for 1 minute. Add cauliflower and let sauté untouched, for 3 minutes, or until it is nicely browned on one side. Toss to allow cauliflower to cook on the other side. As both sides brown, turn down flame and cook. Keep on flame until the cauliflower is cooked almost all the way through, about 10-12 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Remove garlic clove and set cauliflower aside in a warm and covered bowl.

Meanwhile, another sauté pan, heat over medium high heat. When hot, add the butter. When the butter melts, add the radishes and a generous pinch of sea salt and grated pepper. Taste for seasoning. Sauté until soft, about 3-5 minutes. Add the pinch of chopped tarragon and toss.

Add the remaining ½ teaspoon of olive oil to the warm (and empty) cauliflower sauté pan. Once the oil is heated, add left over pasta (if using left-over, dry pasta) and reheat over low flame until warm (about 4 minutes). If using fresh from the pot pasta, simply drain. Add hot pasta to a warm bowl with sautéed vegetables. Toss.

Add ¼ cup to ½ cup grated Parmesan to pasta, toss. Taste pasta for seasoning, adjust if necessary. Plate in warm bowls. Finish with a drizzle of finishing olive oil and a pinch of sea salt. Serve immediately.

“Blessed are those who expect little. They are seldom disappointed.”

—Tony Hillerman


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Food Woolf Written by:

Brooke Burton is an Los Angeles-based restaurant professional and hospitality expert. She is a freelance food writer, speaker, and co-author of The Food Blog Code of Ethics.


  1. matt
    October 30

    Ahhh! I can tell that I would immediately love this recipe. It looks so good!

  2. Robin
    October 30

    I never thought of cooking radishes before! What a great idea. I liked this post, because I too often enjoy the challenge of an empty refrigerator and find that the best, most unexpected dishes can result.

  3. Leah Greenstein
    October 30

    Great recipe, creativity and photography, Brooke! You’ve inspired me to be creative tonight.

  4. elizabeth
    November 5

    Thank you for this post. The comment…”Like the generations of women before me that created culinary masterpieces from scraps…” is something that I have thought of often. In this speedy world of fast food restaurants are we loosing a valuable connection to home and family that can only be created in the warmth of the family kitchen? Creating culinary masterpieces from nothing is an art and an expression of love.

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