Fractal art has been popular for the last twenty or thirty years. It combines mathematics and art, often using computer algorithms to produce geometric patterns that are repeated at an ever smaller scale to create irregular shapes and surfaces. You will find some amazing fractal images on the Internet or Wikipedia.
There are also some arresting examples of fractals in nature: the shape of the nautilus shell; the ever-diminishing tendrils of a lightning bolt; tree limbs dividing into smaller and smaller branches; pine cones; pineapple; and an aloe plant. A head of Romanesco is one of the most startling and beautiful. The color is almost electric, and the vegetable florets form amazing designs as they get smaller and smaller and rise into tiny pyramids.
My first encounter with Romanesco was when Sarah and Evan humored me a number of years ago, letting me prep vegetables in their first pop-up dinner at Radius in San Francisco. I was fascinated by the chartreuse color, the geometrically perfect florets, and the incredible shapes in a single head.
Since then, I have only seen Romanesco in a few stalls at various farmers markets. I have never seen it at the grocery store. If you should find some, select only the greenest heads and plan to use them in a day or two. Use the vegetable in your favorite recipe for broccoli or cauliflower. Or be adventurous and try something different. They’re even delicious raw.
There is a certain mystery about the vegetable. Some call it Romanesco broccoli. Some call it Romanesco cauliflower. That’s because no one seems to be quite certain what its closest relative might be. The cautious – like me – just refer to it as Romanesco. What does seem clear is that it was first developed in Rome at least as early as the 16th century and hence the name.
The great thing is that you can use it as you would either broccoli or cauliflower. You can also have a good time admiring its unique and beautiful shape. This recipe is an adaptation from one found in the lavishly illustrated, encyclopedic Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider (HarperCollins Publishers Inc., New York, 2001, p. 124) Somehow, Romanesco, pine nuts, garlic, and Romano all seem to go together. I have browned the garlic in the brown butter. “Whoa,” you say. “Browned garlic is bitter.” But that’s not true if you make sure it doesn’t burn. Think of that delicious Mexican garlic and butter sauce, mojo de ajo. Add some grilled ham and you have a set of complementary flavors and a complete light dinner.
Romanesco with Brown Butter, Pine Nuts, Garlic, and Romano Cheese
Served with Grilled Ham Steak
- 1/3 cup raw pine nuts
- 1 head Romanesco
- salt and pepper
- 1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter
- 3 cloves garlic, minced
- fresh Romano cheese, grated
- 4 ounce boneless ham steak, grilled
- In a dry sauté pan over medium heat, toast the pine nuts until lightly browned and the oils have been released. Stir frequently. Do not burn. Remove from the heat and set aside.
- In a large pot fitted with a steaming rack, place the whole head of Romanesco over about an inch of boiling water and steam, covered, for 10 minutes or until the vegetable pierces easily with a cooking fork. Season with salt and pepper.
- While the Romanesco is steaming, melt the butter in a small sauce pan over medium-low heat, stirring frequently until the butter solids begin to brown. Be very careful not to burn. Stir in the minced garlic. The mixture may foam up. If that happens, stir vigorously and remove from the heat until the foaming subsides. Return to the heat only until the garlic is lightly browned.
- Grill a small boneless ham steak and arrange in the middle of the serving plate.
- Place the steamed Romanesco on the grilled ham steak. Sprinkle with the toasted pine nuts. Pour over the browned butter with lightly browned garlic. Top with grated Romano. Serve whole and cut into servings at the table.