Some people think it resembles coral, others say it looks alien, while many see a work of art – mathematical art to be exact. This oddly beautiful vegetable is the cause of much botanical drama. Sometimes called Romanesco broccoli and other times called Romanesco cauliflower in North America, the French call it Romanesco cabbage, while Italians refer to it as broccolo Romanesco or broccoflower. Another name, minaret, is also used.
Truth be told, this pale, lime-green vegetable tastes like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It offers a distinct, nutty flavour, often described as "more intense" than broccoli. It has a slightly sweet flavour with none of the bitterness of cauliflower, which I’ve been told makes it more popular with kids.
Romanesco is a variant of cauliflower, but is not a modern broccoflower hybrid. It is actually an Italian vegetable that dates back to the 1500s. Romanesco is a unique Italian variety of brassica that produces a dense, spiraling head and is native to Europe, the Middle East and Asia. It is a fascinating vegetable, not only for its botanical lineage, but also for its growth pattern. It’s a true example of phyllotaxis – the fractal or logarithmic patterning that appears in nature – which results in the spiraling cone heads. Within each head, too, is a fractal spiral; this self-similar pattern continues at several smaller levels too!
In the kitchen, it's a joy. You can often buy small heads of Romanesco, which are ideal for serving whole. Alternatively, cut into chunky florets (to preserve that marvelous pattern), blanch, then dunk immediately in icy water to fix the divine colour and serve cold in a salad - it's good with shreds of raw red onion (soaked in salty water to soften their pungency), olives and capers and a dressing of peppery olive oil and lemon. Mingled with garlic and lots of chilli, and tossed into orecchiette pasta with olive oil and Parmesan, it's an all-time favourite quick supper.
Like its relatives, Romanesco is best when cooked slightly crisp or just tender. Over cooking it produces the off-putting broccoli smell. That said, it is far more forgiving than its cauliflower and broccoli relatives, which is another reason to love it.
Romanesco is super-rich in antioxidants, vitamins A and C, and fiber.