Tuesday, November 5, 2013

What the heck is that? Romanesco

When I've seen romanesco, typically at farmers' markets, it's often been displayed next to the lovely purple and peach colored cauliflower, so I’ve assumed that this groovy-looking vegetable is just another cauliflower variation. But the truth is more complicated.

But before we look into romanesco's DNA, let’s first focus for a moment on its appearance. Romanesco looks like it should inspire a thousand architectural acid trips.

Its color is a lovely lime green. Its shape has been described as "spires and minarets" and "a natural approximation of a fractal." Fractals are shapes or patterns that look basically the same over a wide range of scales. Think of snowflakes. Or think of romanesco, whose little spiral buds join together to make up a kind of giant spiral bud. Romanesco is the the subject of this article by John Walker, called, “Fractal Food: Self-Similarity on the Supermarket Shelf,” which notes,

Nearly exact self-similar fractal forms occur do in nature, but I'd never seen such a beautiful and perfect example until, sometime after moving to Switzerland, I came across a chou Romanesco in a grocery store. This is so visually stunning an object that on first encounter it's hard to imagine you're looking at a garden vegetable rather than an alien artefact created with molecular nanotechnology. But of course, then you realise that vegetables are created with molecular nanotechnology, albeit the product of earthly evolution, not extraterrestrial engineering.

My informal survey about the romanesco's appearance elicited these comparisons and comments: coral reef; space ship; "definitely some kind of stone," "a vegetable pagoda," and "Did Gaudi eat this when he was designing some of his buildings?" 

Back to romanesco's DNA. As Walker notes, in some countries romanesco is called "chou," or cabbage; elsewhere it's romanesco broccoli or romanesco cauliflower. Broccoli, cauliflower and other members of the brassica oleracea family have cross-bred for centuries; cavolo broccolo romanesco (as it is known in Italy) apparently dates back to the time of Julius Caesar.

Which side of the family does romanesco favor? Botanical testing says cauliflower is its closest kin.

My own taste test agrees. Romanesco has its own flavor, reminiscent of cauliflower but sweeter. It keeps its shape well when steamed - you could break it up into florets later - and would make a fine addition to a crudite platter. Sauteing with garlic and red pepper flakes or a squeeze of lemon, as you might with broccoli rabe, is another good option. 

Here it is steamed and coupled simply with some sriracha sauce; other good options would be a garlicky dip or something zesty-Mediterranean, with capers and olives.  They'll play nicely off the romanesco's sweet vegetable flavor, but there's no real competition for its striking looks.

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