Imagine a pale green cauliflower with strange conical florets and you have romanesco broccoli, a cauliflower variant from the part of Italy near Rome. It’s one of the most beautiful vegetables you will ever see. Apparently, the pointy florets are an example of fractals in nature. And that is by far the geekiest thing I will ever say on West of the Loop. Like its cousins, broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts, romanesco is a super food with vitamins C and K, plenty of dietary fiber and cancer-fighting carotenoids. You can cook romanesco much as you would broccoli or cauliflower: you can steam it, boil it — but don’t overboil it or yuck — or roast it. The flavor is more like cauliflower than broccoli, with a certain nuttiness and sweetness that broccoli lacks, in my humble opinion. (While I adore cauliflower, I’m pretty meh on broccoli.)
I read about romanesco a few weeks back in Mario Batali’s syndicated newspaper column and was delighted to find it at the Oak Park Farmers Market the following week. Romanesco is in season exactly now. Autumn at the farmers market can be a little bittersweet. Gone are the berries and luscious stone fruits of July and August. But in their stead are apples, cranberries, pears and a world of enticing vegetables from squash to peppers to cauliflower and Brussels sprouts still on the stalk. Many of these vegetables will last for several weeks in your root cellar or refrigerator and romanesco is one of them. The season for buying this amazing, mathematically alluring vegetable may be fleeting, so buy a few extra and store them. I mean, how often do you get to eat a fractal?
(As an aside, please don’t confuse romanesco the vegetable with romesco sauce. Romesco is a delicious sauce made with red peppers and nuts and thickened with bread that hails from Catalonia. You may have seen it at a tapas restaurant. I’m glad we cleared that up.)
When I got my romanesco home, I did some research to learn more about how best to prepare it. I read in this column by Gina dePalma, the pastry chef at Babbo, that romanesco pairs well with pasta and just like that I knew what we were having for dinner. I agreed with Ms DePalma that I would want garlic and red pepper flakes as the base for my pasta sauce. But I wanted to make my dish slightly more complex than the one she suggests.
On a lark, I threw in marinated red peppers for some combination of sweetness and color. I think the pairing worked out well. The bread crumbs add some texture. If I were to make this again — and I am going to make this again — I might substitute toasted pine nuts for the bread crumbs.Of course, if you can’t find romanesco, this recipe would work perfectly well with regular old cauliflower.
But if this pasta dish strikes you as elaborate, feel free to disregard it. Romanesco will delight you in its simplest form: boiled for just a few minutes and served with butter and lemon or tossed with olive oil and roasted in a hot oven until tender. It will be like visiting Rome in the fall without ever leaving your kitchen. Okay, perhaps not. But it’s always fun to try a new vegetable, right?
Pasta with Romanesco and Marinated
1 head Romanesco broccoli, cut into florets
1 lb. short, tubular pasta
2 TB olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 cup marinated red peppers, sliced
2 TB dry bread crumbs
1/4 cup flat-leaf parsley, chopped
Blanch the romanesco florets in boiling salted water for 2-3 minutes until just tender. Don”t overcook. Drain and dump florets into a bowl of ice water to stop cooking. When the florets are cool, drain them again. This part may be done in advance.
Cook the pasta according to the package directions. While the pasta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large deep skillet. Add the minced garlic and the red pepper flakes. Cook garlic until just golden. Add the romanesco florets and toss to coat with the oil. Saute florets until fork-tender. Season will with salt and pepper. Add the marinated red peppers. When the pasta is done, drain it and add it to the skillet with the romanesco. Toss to combine. Pour the pasta and vegetables into a large serving bowl. Add the bread crumbs and the parsley. Garnish with grated Parmesan.
I hope that you are able to find romanesco broccoli where you live.