It’s not every day you meet a new food, one you’ve never seen or tasted, one you can’t identify. You can never know everything about food. It’s humbling, just when you thought you were getting a handle on things. There’s always a new ingredient from somewhere on the planet. One year Szechuan pepper, another year smoked salt.
By Sally Levitt Steinberg
I know cardoons and cardamom and carpaccio. I’ve eaten adobo and stracchino. I’ve never had an ortolan, but I did eat eye of trout in Japan. The eye was staring out of a hole in the middle of a table in a kaiseki dinner in a ryokan. I had fried beetles in Bali—yes, they were meant to be eaten. I was served but declined a monkey brain in Asia. But the other night I saw a green thing I’d never seen, in the mushrooms, a strange apparition. A green flash.
Here’s how it happened. At Craigie On Main in Cambridge, MA, in a dish of flora and fauna from barnyard and forest floor, mushrooms along with cockscombs and Hakurei turnips, there was an unexpected, never-before-seen, brilliantly green miniature tree, with pleasing foliage radiating in a spiral pattern on its cone shape, looking as if it had jumped from a fairy tale in a glade on to the plate and also looking vaguely geometric or mathematical or even architectural.
Later I would learn that it was profoundly mathematical—the pattern of its component florets repeats itself in a predictable, formulaic rhythm, each one a microcosm of the entire head, and each tiny floret shoot a microcosm of the larger floret. What a piece of work is creation! What a miracle of science in a cruciferous vegetable.
We said, “What’s that green thing in the mushroom ragout?”
Someone said, “Kohlrabi.”
I looked it up. It wasn’t kohlrabi. But what was it?
The menu listed all this stuff, cockscombs included, in the mushrooms. It didn’t seem to be named. . . . Oh wait. There’s a name I didn’t recognize. Could that be it? Could Romanesco be a name for broccoli? And more amazing, it’s fascinating and delicious. Take that, first President Bush.
This bit of cutting-edge gastronomy is eye-catching and mouthwatering, a vegetable as old as the Roman hills. It’s bosky. It tastes subtle, velvety, green, and vegetal, with an elusive savor, vaporous, the way avocado vanishes into thin air with its smoothness. It looks seductive too, glowing with an unearthly, phosphorescent beauty. Vegetable pulchritude.
Romanesco, named for its place of origin in ancient times where it was grown exclusively, is cropping up on menus, the newest new thing and one of the oldest. It is sneaking up out of the Lazio hills of the Roman countryside, out of the mists of Italian history. Some say it harks back to the times of Julius Caesar. Something old, something new.
Chef Jody Adams of Rialto in the Charles Hotel says, “It’s very old. I feel like I’ve always known it.”
Sometimes called Romanesco cauliflower or broccoflower (it is technically an edible flower) or cabbage or even asparagus (an early mistaken identification based on not knowing what to make of this vegetable mystery), it is close to all these, a clone of none, hard to classify accurately. Cauliflower or broccoli, mathematical formula or vegetable? Ce n’est pas une pipe! Mostly it is itself, and as one expert said, “deserves its own listing.”
And that self led me to a hitherto undiscovered trove of lore and information about a bit of nature, a piece of conical greenery that holds within not only a history dating back to Julius Caesar, not only a place in the pantheon of crucifers, but a mathematics and a personality. Food as cultural artifact.
And the color—an impossible color between green and yellow, with white highlights—beams out. Saturated color, brighter than bright, like Caribbean birds or carnival costumes. Someone called it “fluorescent broccoli.” It’s a glowing yellow-green, chartreuse, otherworldly, neon, as if lit from within. A special effect vegetable created by nature.
What does it remind you of? Romanesco makes poets of us all. Or mathematicians or Leonardos, observers and theoreticians of the natural world. It’s a Rorschach test. It reminds everyone of something else, not just itself. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure thing.
There’s the math and science aspect. Romanesco is fractal, symmetrical, formulaic, pyramidal or conical, harmonious, spiraling, rhythmic, and logarithmic. A restaurant host said, “I’m a science guy. Romanesco is like fractals. You know when you look at rivers from above they curve around and around? That’s what it looks like.”
In fact, Romanesco is “self-similar,” or “fractal,” which is a mathematical principle described by Leibniz in the 17th century in which each small part, although different in size, is identical to the others and also an exact replica of the larger whole. This pattern appears all over the natural world, in clouds and snowflakes, for example.
As if that were not enough, there’s more math. All the florets are arranged in a spiral, called a logarithmic spiral, in a rhythm called the Fibonacci series, which is said to be based on “the famous golden number, origin of all aesthetic harmony according to the Renaissance artists.” Romanesco, a vegetable with an equation. The logarithmic spiral was identified by Descartes, and it also appears frequently in nature. Does Romanesco remind you of a mollusk? The shell of the cephalopod Nautilus is another example of a logarithmic spiral. So is a cyclone.
This journey into the mathematical properties of a vegetable was for me its own unending spiral, a descent not into the maelstrom but into the byzantine ramifications of the mathematically-based patterns of the natural world, leading to further exploration I had to put an end to when the natural end was not in sight. Who knew such wonders lay inside of a little, edible, green cornet?
Then there’s the poetic and artistic aspect, the emphasis on beauty, art, creature comparisons, architecture, and enchantments. Romanesco could be a miniature hiding place for elves, like a toadstool. Out of Alice in Wonderland. Or a pagoda, a parasol. It belongs in the forested world, the forest populated by fantastical growths we take for granted but that appear magical. Who could have thought up big umbrella funghi stuck on a tree trunk? The enchanted forest, you know the one.
It also has a leprechaun look—the light green dancing color, Limerick green, Shamrock green. But not Irish. With a name like that of an opera singer, how could it be?
Chefs using Romanesco have a lot to say about all of its aspects, not just the gastronomic.
Charles Draghi of Erbaluce in Boston says, “Crazy look, doesn’t it? It kinda looks like a Horny Toad. In Italy as a kid I would look at it; it was so cool looking. What is that and can you eat it? It looked as if it might sting you.”
And also, “Nature loves symmetry in a radiating pattern. I do a lot of scungilli, and I use the smaller tiger whelks. The whelks will sometimes gather in a cluster around a single food item; if there’s a piece of fish, they gather round it. Romanesco looks like a cluster of whelks.”
Jody Adams of Rialto says, “I saw it in Rome at the Campo dei Fiore market. It looks like a wild and crazy cross between broccoli and cauliflower. It’s dramatic, Madonna-esque, like something Madonna would wear. Like a bra. Very spiky and evocative of the female anatomy. I really like that. Also it’s all about the flower, which is great.”
Shape matters. Romanesco florets are glowing green turrets that could adorn a castle but are edible blooms. Its architecture is decidedly one of nature’s wonders. More circular than a bunch of broccoli or cauliflower, it appeals to us. Many of the resonant natural phenomena that astonish hew to the spherical. Spheres are everywhere—on earth in fairy rings and the raccoon’s stripes and in the heavens, hot as in sun, cold as in moon. We like them. They pervade heavenly bodies and our bodies, cosmos and culture. Rings of Saturn. Circles of friends, dress circles at the opera. Jade pi and wedding ring. The Romanesco is its own green galaxy, whorls upon whorls. It’s a fugue of a vegetable, repeating, circling back on itself.
And there’s the gastronomy aspect, where how it tastes is the thing. Adams says, “I think it looks like a very aggressive vegetable, and that’s kind of nice. The thing I like about those vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, and Romanesco, is that they hold up well to roasting, which draws out the sugars and they caramelize.”
She says, “Broccoli is a crowd pleaser. If you were to poll kids in elementary school, I bet 99 percent would say their favorite vegetable is broccoli. I prefer broccoli rabe. Cauliflower has an earthy specific flavor, and Romanesco bridges those two flavors beautifully. We invented the preparation. What’s not to like about pork? Right? Romanesco is a very Italian vegetable; the Italians braise vegetables with garlic and hot pepper, anchovies, and pork fat. It came out of my head but the flavor combinations are pretty true to an Italian dish.”
Draghi says, “The aunts over there were always cooking. There are three categories of chefs—technical, visual, or a flavor chef. For me, once the fork goes through the presentation, it’s over. I like dishes to haunt people so they come back. What I love about this vegetable is that it has the best qualities of broccoli, that green chlorophyll quality, but also the creamy sweetness of cauliflower. Without those heavy-handed sulfur compounds that are healthy but can put off the taste.”
Draghi’s idea for it is lemon sabayon. “When I was a kid there were a lot of broccoli-type vegetables where I spent summers in Piedmont and Lombardy. We had the rapini, the wild one, thinner, with intense licorishy flavor. With Romanesco you put it in a hot pan and you lid it and the green comes out. I make a savory sabayon sauce, with egg yolks, a splash of Marsala, and lots of lemon, nutmeg, no sugar, and whip it nice and frothy so it has a light, airy, lemony, eggy flavor.”
He also uses an ancient condiment called garum with it. “The Romans had garum they carried in bottles around their necks, the universal condiment of the Romans and the Greeks—it’s anchovies in salt water that you ferment, a fish sauce. They buried the fish bones in salt in jars to ferment. They brought it with them into battle to Transalpine Gaul.”
Tony Maws of Craigie On Main puts it with cockscombs in mushroom ragout. “The Romanesco would have been glaceed ahead of time (glaceed meaning braised, with butter and stock) and folded into the ragout. Romanesco is a great vegetable. We plan on using it for years to come.” He adds the cockscombs, the red floppy adornments on the head of a rooster. They are part of Old World cookery. “I come from an Old World family. Cockscombs are a traditional French countryside dish. We don’t put them there for shock value; we put them there because they taste good. I first started cooking them at Clio. We made sure we had fun stuff on the plate. We did a pot pie with cockscombs and truffles,” Maws says. A chicken pot pie with a difference.
Even on the gastronomic side of things, Romanesco is true to its choose-your-own-adventure nature—with garum or sabayon, cockscombs or pork, it serves as a lightning rod for flavors pronounced or subtle or as a foil for living things from land and sea. It’s versatile but not unassuming. It maintains its identity in a gastronomic field.
Adams says, “People are curious about it. When we couldn’t get it, we served different color cauliflower and people complained.”
Most people have not heard of Romanesco, and they don’t quite know what you’re talking about. They say “What?” And you have to name it again. People mistake it for the sauce Romesco, a Catalan concoction with nuts and garlic and peppers and tomatoes. But awareness of it is dawning.
Romanesco tastes delicate, not cabbagey. But it’s a crucifer, so we know it’s good for us—cruciferous vegetables are loaded with beneficial, cancer-fighting nutrients. Crucifers are plants with four petals in the form of a cross—radish, turnip, mustard. Among the archetypes enriching this apparently simple plant then is also the cross, an echo of a powerful symbolic presence.
This one’s a crucifer with a twist, gastronomic, historical, aesthetic, mathematical, and perhaps symbolic. When we look at and into Romanesco, so much arises from its depths and shadows, the labyrinth of unending, unfolding reference points and resonances from unexpected realms of discourse that lie behind it. This variegated vegetable is nutritious as well as delicious; visually fabulous as well as fabulistic. Who knew what could be in a vegetable?
Those Italians are sneaky. They know vegetables that have been around since Roman times, but they follow a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy. So no, we don’t know their cardoons or their heirloom Romanesco, that is, we didn’t until this gorgeous Calypso of the vegetable world started singing its siren song to us. But now we know better.
Sally Levitt Steinberg is a writer, journalist, and oral/personal historian. She has written several books, including The Donut Book, the world’s definitive book of everything-you-need-to-know about donuts. It was chosen twice as a Book-of-the-Month Club selection, it has been featured in all the media, including NPR, the Martha Stewart radio shows, and the film “Donut Crazy” for the Travel Channel, and its materials form The National Donut Collection at the Smithsonian Museum.
She has written a biography, The Book of Joy, as well as several personal histories and a book on interior design. Her essay, “Coffin Couture,” was cited as the best piece in the recent anthology of personal history, My Words Are Gonna Linger. She has written articles for many publications, including The New York Times, The Boston Globe, and The New Yorker. She lives in Boston.
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