So there we were at the Union Square greenmarket,

in search of interesting squash of which there turned out to be not very much, and there IT was, Romanesco! The absolutely best cauliflower in the world, if cauliflower it is. ( Some say broccoli, some say cauliflower, most in the know say they don’t know; but if you go by culinary properties, it’s cauliflower)

Photo by John Walker

Doesn’t do to go on about the holy grail or anything, but Romanesco has yet to be readily available, even in the uppermost of upscale markets, and growing it is – see below – a pain, so it’s definitely a “must buy,” even when it costs more than the very reasonable 3 bucks a head they were charging last Saturday.

Romanesco is as delicious as it is gorgeous: less crumbly than other cauliflowers, more toothsome than broccoli, slightly sweet , slightly nutty, not sulfurous unless you let it spend too much time in table-décor mode.

Displaying Romanesco is simplicity itself; just cut the base so it stands level, then put it in a slick of water. (If you use a bowl, be sure the water doesn’t come more than a half-inch or so up the base.) It will stay handsome for 2 or 3 days if it’s kept out of the sun; you can get 4 or more if you put it in the fridge each night. The base is tough, difficult to slice without pressing so firmly you break off points. Use a serrated knife.

Eating Romanesco: For best flavor and texture, buy two, so you can display one and keep the other in the coldest part of the fridge until you eat it asap. Simplest thing is to eat it raw, with coarse salt. Next easiest thing is raw with just about any dip, although the very best may be

Bagna Cauda

Translates “hot bath,” and must be hot to be tasty, so the most important ingredient is a small chafing dish or a saucepan that fits neatly on a portable burner. Good with any vegetable firm enough to dip; just be sure to let whatever it is come to room temperature before serving; the vegetable will have better flavor and it won’t cool its coating and spoil the effect. This recipe is adapted from from my 1969 edition of Ada Boni’s justifiably durable – albeit currently out of print – Italian Regional Cooking. It’s much heavier on butter than most, and even I, the Dairy Queen, often use mostly oil. But before you dismiss the butter out of hand, try it, especially with strong flavored vegetables such as the traditional cardoon ( also endive, celery root, bell pepper and cole flowers ).
½ pound unsalted butter
¼ cup olive oil
2 – 4 tablespoons minced garlic ( use more if it’s hardneck , less if it’s conventional)
6 canned anchovy filets
optional : 1 small thinly sliced truffle

Melt butter with oil over low heat, then add garlic and let it seethe without coloring. Remove from heat, add anchovies and let them sit a minute to soften. Mush them around with a wooden spoon until they dissolve. ( Add truffle if using), salt to taste, reheat to simmering and serve ditto.

Please report back if you try the truffle; confess I’ve never in 40 years of using the recipe.

Cooking Romanesco
: like broccoli and cauliflower, chunks are tastiest steam-sautaéed.

1. Cut off florets, cut interior into slightly-less-than floret size chunks. Boil about 1/2 inch of water in a non-reactive sautaé pan large enough to hold the pieces in a single layer. Add pieces, partially cover the pan and stay nearby, alert for the sizzle of “watersallgoneeeek!”. Shake pan (or stir contents) from time to time.

2. In less than 5 minutes, when almost all of the water has evaporated, test a chunk. If it’s still near-raw, turn down the heat, cover the pan and keep cooking until almost done. If initial boiling yields almost done, proceed at once to

3. Remove cover. Stand right there shaking the pan until it’s dry, then add enough olive oil or butter to coat all pieces thinly. Add seasonings if wanted: minced garlic, shredded lemon zest, julienned sweet or hot red pepper, toasted cumin seeds… Turn heat to medium and keep cooking until the chunks are just cooked through and starting to turn gold at the edges. Sprinkle w/ coarse salt and eat ’em up. Good cold if you use olive oil.

Why I say growing Romanesco is a pain:

There are a number of different cultivars, some hybrid, some open pollinated (Romanesco dates back to at least the 16th century), but even the earliest takes about 80 days to single-head-per-plant harvest , counting from when you plant out the 4 to 6 week old seedlings. Seedlings are frost tender, but those 80 days must all be cool ones, so Romanesco is a fall crop in the Northeast.

That means getting the seedlings going in the heat of summer, a challenge given their preferred growing temperature of roughly 60 degrees. Then, Romanesco being a cauliflower, it needs near-neutral, highly-fertile soil, plenty of moisture, plenty of room to grow – at least 18 inches between plants and 30 inches between rows – and plenty of attention to bug and disease prevention; Romanesco is vulnerable to every one of the 350,000 afflictions that target brassicas. Other than that, piece of cake.

The photographer:

John Walker was attracted by Romanesco’s fractal form, then fell briefly into vegetable love before once more romancing the math.

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