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.
Fractal art (Image from the Internet)
3D fractal art (From 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.
A fresh head of Romanesco
The finished dish
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.
Susan and I just returned from another trip to San Francisco. We babysat our 10 months- and 3 years-old grandsons while Sarah and Evan travelled to Dallas. They were invited to cook with the staff at a hot, new Dallas restaurant, FT33. Sarah and Evan and the local chef alternated dishes for an 8-course tasting menu with wine pairings. The place was sold out, and Sarah got to see Corey and Megan, school friends of our other daughter, along with a fellow member of her crew team at the University of Texas.
My cooking task was more challenging: I was charged with feeding the two little ones. Actually, the 10-month-old was not difficult. He is still drinking a lot of liquids, and he will eat anything else you put in front of him.
The three-year-old was another story. The first morning, he wouldn’t eat his cheerios until I added some milk, so the next morning I anticipated him and poured in the milk. That morning he decided he didn’t want milk, so I had to scrap the first bowl. The next morning I made French toast with maple syrup. He didn’t like it, but the 10-month-old polished it off.
My greatest failure turned out to be lunch. I put together some things for his lunch box for nursery school. My first thought was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. What child doesn’t like PB&J? Besides, PB&J is not forbidden at his nursery school as it is in many places. As I was planning my menu, Sarah sent a text message that the toddler doesn’t like peanut butter. I made a quick change of plans and substituted some chèvre that I found in the fridge. Then, I reached for a jar of fig jam when he announced that he didn’t like jelly. For that, I substituted some hummus. I thought a goat cheese and hummus sandwich on whole wheat bread looked pretty tasty, so I packed it with freeze-dried strawberry slices, crispy apple chips, and a stick of string cheese. Imagine my disappointment when the lunch box came home at the end of the day with only the string cheese gone.
We took advantage of the kids being at nursery school by taking a little trip to the Embarcadero and enjoying a good lunch at the well-known Fog City Diner.
The iconic TransAmerica Tower and the classic Fog City Diner
The Star Princess at dockside waiting for a new group of passengers
Pigeons in front of the Exploratorium
Daredevils stabilizing Telegraph Hill.
I was more successful with dinner one night. I found some packaged gnocchi and a cooked chicken breast in the refrigerator along with some mushrooms and colorful “snacking peppers”. I put it all together with some brown butter sauce, and it turned out to be a huge favorite with both kids.
Gnocchi, Chicken, Mushrooms, Peppers, and Beurre Noisette
- ½ cup unsalted butter
- juice of ½ lime
- ½ cooked chicken breast
- 6 white button mushrooms, sliced
- 1 each, red, orange, and yellow snacking peppers, sliced crosswise
- 1 package prepared gnocchi
- ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
- ½ cup grated Romano cheese
- salt and pepper
- In a small saucepan over low het, melt the butter. Heat gently until the milk solids float to the top and begin to brown. Skim off the solids with a tablespoon. Pour the melted butter into a small bowl, leaving any remaining solids on the bottom of the saucepan behind. Wipe the pan clean, return the clarified butter, and continue to heat over a low flame until it turns a nut-brown color. (hazelnut to be specific) Stir in the lime juice and set aside.
- Shred the cooked chicken with two table forks. Set aside.
- Sauté the sliced mushrooms in 2 tablespoons of the butter sauce over medium heat. Add the remaining butter sauce. Stir in the shredded chicken and pepper slices until heated through.
- In the meantime, boil the gnocchi in a pot of boiling salted water according to package instructions. Drain. Return to the pot, and stir in the butter sauce, mushrooms, chicken, peppers, and grated cheeses. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper.