The other day I was thinking about food (not, as you can imagine, a novelty) – trying to find inspiration for my next kitchen adventure. Oddly, I was finding it challenging to decide on a direction. So I stopped obsessing and went for a walk with my friend Amy. Off into the forest-lined paths of Carkeek Park we went – Fargo gleefully running about – leash be damned. The sun shone down as if winter was truly and decidedly over. Talking of this and that, our conversation finally turned to food.
Amy mentioned her delight with the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) service she uses and we talked of the merits of this increasingly popular way to buy local, seasonal food directly from farms (stay tuned for more on CSAs in the not-too-distant future). Then she said it. That magical word. Romanesco. My ears pricked up. I could not believe she had received one in her weekly box of produce – one of the few vegetables in my culinary “bucket list.” The Romanesco has always topped my list of vegetables to conquer before I perish. It was meant to be.
Like many, my friend was a bit perplexed with the Romanesco and had been putting off trying to figure out what to do with the creature. It is, admittedly, a rather daunting piece of produce. Alien-like in appearance, I like to compare its florets to the bejeweled headpieces the exquisite Thai women wear when dancing so majestically with fingers poised just so. Many compare the almost neon green Romanesco to cauliflower, yet with freakish, jagged peaks. And most people I’ve talked with have never ventured to actually eat, no less, cook this peculiar looking vegetable.
But I was giddy with anticipation. I love exploration and the delight of “going where no (wo)man has gone before.” Soon after our walk I was off to the store. The doors glided silently open and I was surrounded by the Shangri-la that is the Whole Foods produce section. Though I try to do my best to shop local – focusing on farmer’s markets and Seattle-based grocery stores – I was on a mission and made the assumption that Whole Foods would be the most logical destination to search out the often elusive Romanesco. A quick pan of the pristinely arranged piles of shining fruits and vegetables made my stomach lurch. My intended treasure was nowhere to be seen. I continued to look, my heart beating faster and my mind already turning to alternatives. But I would not relinquish my objective. Nothing less than a Romanesco would do.
So I asked the friendly “produce guy” if they had any in stock. He scrunched up his eyes and said, “I think we have a box of those on the dock – but they might have been sent back.” Off he went as I stood shifting my weight from one foot to the other, trying to appear calm. Then I saw him pushing a cart through the double swinging doors. Victory! Out came a box of bright green heads of Romanesco. As I picked through them to find the most exceptional candidates – I asked “produce guy” if he had ever tried one. “Nope,” he replied. “Not quite sure what to do with them.” As I suspected – yet another mystified soul.
Then at the checkout stand, the checker asked, “Do these things taste like broccoli or cauliflower?” “A bit of both,” I responded, despite the fact that I had never eaten one. But from what I had read, she had it about right. I then glanced at the young girl who was bagging my groceries. Holding my cloth sack open, she was studying my bag full of Romanesco, waiting for the checker to push it down to her. I was terror-stricken. Surely she wasn’t going to place my prized possesion on the bottom of the bag?! “Um, hi,” I said to her. “Could you possibly put those things on the top of all the other groceries? They’re a bit delicate.” If she thought I was disturbed, she didn’t let on. She just packed my bag and gently perched the Romanesco on top. And I was off to return to my kitchen for some serious experimentation.
Before the cooking began, I tasted a small floret – raw. A texture and taste more similar to cauliflower than broccoli – yet with a distinct, earthy broccoli essence. My task – to figure out the best way to retain the Romanesco’s unique physical form while making it taste delicious. I didn’t want to compromise the fractal appearance of the florets. So I tried three techniques that I use for everyday cauliflower and broccoli – boiling, steaming and roasting. The results are below but I can say without equivocation that roasting is by far my personal favorite. Granted, the lime green color dissipates in the oven. However the florets retain their structure and the green does peek out against the brown singed edges.
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- 1 head Romanesco, broken into florets (you can use the stalk too – just peel it and slice thinly)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1 lemon, halved and thinly sliced
- 1 ounce parmesan cheese – shaved or grated
- 2 tablespoons toasted pine nuts (optional)
- Coarse salt and ground pepper
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees.
On a rimmed baking sheet, toss Romanesco with oil, garlic, and lemon slices; season with salt and pepper. Roast until vegetables are a bit crispy outside and tender inside, 20 to 25 minutes. Toss the vegetables halfway through.
Once out of the oven, discard any bits of garlic that may have charred in the roasting process. Sprinkle with parmesan cheese and toasted pine nuts and serve immediately. It’s perfectly satisfying on its own or can be served over fresh pasta with a splash of high quality olive oil.
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I wanted to figure out a better way to retain the Romanesco’s bright lime green color so I tried both boiling and steaming. Both techniques netted the same result – vivid florets with a crisp texture that allowed the vegetable to be appreciated in its native state. Instructions for both methods are below – and the vegetable is perfectly delicious served just so – perhaps with a dash of salt and a drizzling of olive oil. And traditionally I would also pair it with lemon and garlic – simple, naturally-suited accompaniments. However I wanted to navigate away from the flavor profile used for the roasted version – and curried cauliflower traditionally served in Indian restaurants came to mind. Replacing the pale cauliflower with the bright green Romanesco gives this dish a bit more flair – especially when paired with the vivid gold of the tumeric. The taste is equally, if not a bit more, delicious.
Cut or break off the florets of the Romanesco. Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a full boil, put the florets in, and cook until they are easily pierced by a fork, about 5 minutes. Immerse in cold water to stop the cooking, drain, and air dry on a towel.
Cut or break off the florets of the Romanesco. Place steamer basket in large saucepan; add 1 inch of water. (Water should not touch bottom of basket.) Place flowerets in steamer. Cover and bring to a boil over high heat. Steam 4 to 5 minutes until crisp-tender. Remove from heat immediately and leave uncovered so the florets don’t continue to cook.
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- 1 head Romanesco, cored, cut into florets
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 1/2 large yellow onion, diced
- 2 teaspoons curry powder (I use a mixture of hot and mild)
- 1 teaspoon turmeric
- Pinch cayenne pepper
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/2 cup coconut milk
- 1 cup vegetable broth
Boil or steam Romanesco according to the instructions above. Set aside.
Heat a large skillet on medium. Add the oil and let it heat. Add the onion and sauté until soft and golden, 8 – 10 minutes. Add the spices and stir for a minute. Add the coconut milk and vegetable broth. Simmer for approximately five minutes until it starts to thicken a bit.
Reduce heat to low and add Romanesco and continue to simmer another 7-10 minutes to warm through the vegetables.
Serve over your favorite rice, grains or pasta.
For a complete meal – add ½ can of chickpeas along with the Romanesco and simmer.
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End note: The Romanesco is, in my mind, superior to both broccoli and cauliflower – combining a subtle taste with a crisp-tender texture. I can only imagine the fun kids might have with this alien-like vegetable. And the list of health benefits is virtually endless. So I am a bit disheartened that I don’t see the Romanesco prominently displayed in stores in our area. Hopefully we’ll see more as the season warms. “Produce guy” said they don’t often carry them because people are wary and don’t regularly purchase these vegetables, so much of the stock they do carry sadly goes to waste at the end of the day. I am crossing my fingers that many of you will experiment with Romanesco. Because the more we request this odd piece of produce, the more common it will become in the fields and markets that surround us.