Stare at a head of Romanesco long enough and you’ll go cross-eyed like a kid studying a Magic Eye painting. This lime-green globe, an Italian member of the mustard family, consists of spiraling, pyramid-like florets made up of smaller spiraling, pyramid-like florets, made up of smaller spiraling, pyramid-like florets, so on and so forth to infinity. See what I mean? If and when I have children, staring at heads of psychedelic Romanesco is how I plan to keep them occupied when I want to go out for beers.
“People will see it and be, like, ‘What is that?’” laughs Michael Santoro, who’s been working with Brassica oleracea for the past month at his Bella Vista cookery, The Mildred. “It’s cauliflower on crack.”
As with many sturdy vegetables and cold-tolerant greens, Romanesco’s sweetness intensifies after the first frost, which is why Jersey and Lancaster farmers like Ian Brendle of Green Meadow Farm in Gap, Pa. — he supplies Santoro — are harvesting now, and why the heads are appearing on menus at local restaurants like The Mildred, where it’s used as an accent for the signature beef rib encircled by gratineed macaroni Mornay. Santoro halves heads of Romanesco and roasts them with butter until caramelized. “Then we hit them with veggie stock and a little star anise, just basting and roasting like you would with any braise.” The florets are broken down, then re-roasted with lemon confit and finished with salt and espelette pepper before joining the beef.
Look for large, firm heads of Romanesco, Santoro says: “The big ones have a brackish, mustardy, turnip quality, a little more pungency than smaller ones.” That texture and flavor allows it to stand up to prolonged roasting, as well as pickling, the way Robert Halpern treats Romanesco at Marigold Kitchen, a crunchy accessory for headcheese terrine with braised mustard seeds.
You can also typically find it on Rich Landau’s daily “Dirt List” of specials at Vedge. “We roast it then finish on the grill over wood chips,” says Landau. “I love how it’s like a creamier version of cauliflower, and the wood smoke gives it this really rustic and primal taste experience.”
All that from a vegetable? Better recognize. Romanesco is total-package produce that tastes as good as it looks. Next time you’re having company, leave a few heads out on the kitchen counter, and let the staring contest begin.
Find a romanesco recipe here.