Southwest Cauliflower Rice Pilaf with Toasted Pepitas

Southwest Cauliflower Pilaf with Toasted Pepitas Recipe

Our local Whole Foods invited me to do a live cooking demo of my Skillet Steak Fajitas affording me the opportunity to promote my cookbook, Serve and Savor, at a group event on the topic of casual entertaining. It was a fun, intimate gathering to debut this Southwest Cauliflower Pilaf with Toasted Pepitas recipe.

Rarely can I leave well enough alone and this recipe is a prime example. Mainly because basic Mexican or Spanish rice has never held my interest after a bite or two. Especially when there’s guacamole on the table, which is a must, or authentic refried beans, the rice becomes filler. An afterthought.

Those days are over.

I mishmash-ed a handful of recipes, tossed in lime zest and toasted pepitas, and I had a rice side dish that could hold its own … with more vegetables and a lot less carbs. Ancho chile, cumin, coriander, and oregano is accented with lime and fresh cilantro to bring this dish to life. We enjoyed the warming spices and toasty pepitas with Missouri-Style BBQ Ribs, Skillet Beef Fajitas, and Roasted Chicken (recipe in cookbook)—it’s a tasty complement to roasted or grilled meats.

Let’s talk about cauliflower rice.

Cauliflower has become the darling of vegetables for its subtle taste and versatility as a substitute for starches and grains. I’ve even used it to replace most of the cream in Alfredo with great results. Swapping starches for vegetables in rice dishes like this is an easy way to incorporate more vegetables in your diet … and get kids to eat more too. Use a food processor or a large-hole cheese grater to “rice” the cauliflower, keeping in mind it will shrink by about 25% once cooked, so you don’t want tiny pieces. The pieces won’t be perfectly consistent as some will be slightly smaller or larger, but that’s okay and isn’t noticeable in the finished dish. In my opinion, grated cauliflower resembles the texture of rice so long as it is cooked quickly and remains slightly underdone.

So why add brown rice at all?

Cauliflower rice is best when served fresh—it suffers when reheated, becoming soft or mushy—and it’s hard to gauge if we’ll eat it all in one sitting. Since I routinely plan to have leftovers for lunches or freeze for later, I find adding a small amount of cooked rice helps maintain a consistent, satisfying texture. We use a similar ratio to the one in this recipe when preparing rice for Chicken Broccoli Casserole, Red Beans & Rice, or Chicken Curry. Even after being frozen in the casserole, the cauliflower-rice combo tastes great. Of course, you can substitute the brown rice with quinoa, farro (not gluten-free), buckwheat, or any favorite cooked whole grain.

A healthy side dish easily turns into a quick main dish.

Proofing this recipe for the Whole Foods event, I ended up with a ton of leftovers for just the two of us. I quickly discovered how easy it was to lay a few slices of grilled chicken or steak over a bowl of this Southwest Cauliflower Rice Pilaf, turning it into a complete, satisfying main dish. One bowl, fast and delicious. It could just as easily become soup by adding broth—so many healthy possibilities from one recipe.

Cauliflower subs for the majority of rice in this low-carb, healthy pilaf recipe with flavors of the Southwest.

Southwest Cauliflower Rice Pilaf with Toasted Pepitas
Prep time
Cook time
Total time
Recipe type: Side Dish
Serves / Yields: 8
  • 15 ounces diced canned tomatoes
  • 1 lime, zested and juiced
  • ⅓ cup chicken stock
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  • ½ cup long-grain brown rice
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 cup diced red onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon coriander
  • 1 teaspoon cumin
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt
  • 1 (14 ounce) can black beans, cooked with salt and drained
  • 4 cups grated cauliflower (1 small head)
  • 1 teaspoon sea salt
  • ½ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • ½ teaspoon ancho chile powder
  • 1½ cups corn
  • ⅓ cup raw pepitas, toasted
  • ¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro
  1. Strain the juices from the tomatoes into a 1-cup measuring cup, pressing on the tomatoes to release as much as possible without smashing the tomatoes (this will produce about ⅓ cup). Add the juice of the lime and then fill the remaining amount with water to make 1 cup of liquid to cook the rice. Add this to the rice in a 2-quart saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer for about 40 minutes (or according to rice package directions). Meanwhile, simmer beans in their liquid with ½ teaspoon salt for 5 minutes, then drain beans.
  2. In a large skillet over medium heat, add the oil and cook the onion until softened and beginning to lightly brown at the edges. Add garlic, coriander, cumin, and oregano; stir until fragrant. Add the stock, tomato paste, tomatoes, and ¼ teaspoon salt, stirring to loosen any bits and spices from the pan. Simmer 2 minutes to allow liquid to evaporate. When the rice is done, stir the tomato mixture into the rice, cover, and set aside.
  3. In the same skillet, heat enough oil to coat the bottom of the pan over medium-high heat. Add the cauliflower to the skillet and season with ancho chile powder, salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until almost soft, about 3 minutes. It's okay if it browns in spots, but important that it doesn't overcook in order to retain a firmer texture. Add corn and beans to the skillet with the cauliflower to warm through, about 1 minute. Transfer to a large mixing bowl and toss with lime zest, rice mixture, and cilantro.
  4. Toast the pepitas over med-high heat in a dry skillet until browned and popping, about 2 minutes (this can be done in advance). Stir into rice just before serving.
Notes & Suggestions
Roasted and salted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) can be substituted for the raw pepitas, just reduce the amount of salt in the recipe by ¼ teaspoon and skip the step of toasting in the skillet.

A delicious and healthy low-carb, gluten-free cauliflower rice pilaf recipe. Serve as a side dish or add grilled chicken or steak for a simple and satisfying meal.

More Cauliflower Recipes to Savor:

Cauliflower Alfredo Sauce
Garlic Roasted Cauliflower
Roasted Cauliflower & Garlic Soup
Basil, Tomato & Goat Cheese Pizza
Broccoli-Cauliflower Gratin
Roasted Vegetable Medley with Rosemary & Thyme


  1. says

    I’ve never been a huge fan of cauliflower but I do like it combined with other ingredients. The brown rice, black beans and especially, the pepitas, make this dish very desirable Judy. Who care if it’s got cauliflower, I say. 🙂 Great dish!

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