Sear, then steam. It’s a skillet-­friendly approach to cooking vegetables that delivers both the flavor and texture of a good char, while simultaneously producing a perfectly tender bite. And from Italy, we’ve learned a way to do it even better.

The basic technique solves for the lackluster results we typically get when using only one approach. Searing alone usually causes vegetables to burn outside before turning tender inside, while steaming alone too often delivers mushy results.
We usually start by briefly searing the vegetables in a pan with a bit of oil. Once they develop some color, we add a little liquid and cover the pan. By the time the water steams away, the vegetables are both beautifully tender and nicely browned in spots.

Now enter the Italians, who offer soffocato, literally “to suffocate,” also sometimes called affogato, or “to drown.” As the name might suggest, the low-liquid stovetop braising technique is similar to its American counterpart: smothering. Widely used in the Cajun and Creole cuisines of Louisiana, smothering perhaps is most strongly associated with dishes such as smothered greens. And in fact, it works wonders with other vegetables, too.

In southern Italy, it’s used as a way to cook cauliflower that involves browning, then simmering or braising it in a small amount of liquid that reduces down, coating the vegetable with a concentrated, glaze-like sauce.

Turns out, cauliflower is particularly well suited to the soffocato method. When braised, it takes on a tender, almost meaty texture, and the nooks and crannies of the florets offer plenty of surface area for the sauce to coat. And its mild, subtly sweet flavor pairs well with assertive seasonings.

Some variations produce tender cooked cauliflower with just a bit of caramelization, while others result in a deeply browned crust. But what really intrigued us were the recipes that mix bold additions into the simmering liquid, turning what for us always had been flavorful steam into a deeply flavored coating.

Some cooks add capers or olives; others go with raisins or currants. For our version, we took our cue from cavolfiore affogato, or “drowned cauliflower,” a classic Sicilian preparation of cauliflower that calls for tomatoes and garlic in addition to briny olives. We loved the addition of tomatoes, which broke down during simmering, providing a sweet-savory liquid with which to braise and eventually coat the cauliflower.

Finishing with resiny-rich pine nuts gives this dish a distinctly Sicilian flavor. Serve as a side to grilled pork chops, Italian sausages or meaty, firm fish such as swordfish, or simply top with pecorino or Parmesan cheese and serve with warm, crusty bread as a vegetarian main.