Romanesco, sometimes called "romanesco broccoli" or "broccoflower," is the darling of the brassica family that includes cabbage, kale and cauliflower.
While often likened to broccoli, it's not a broccoli, but a hybrid cauliflower. Chartreuse in color, it has a flavor that is a bit milder than cabbage yet more assertive than cauliflower, with subtle yet distinct nutty taste.
Its intricate nubby spiral pattern is the perfect example of Fibonacci's mathematical observations of nature. Each of the florets of a romanesco is a smaller version of the larger spine on which it grows. This funky appearance is sure to entice even the pickiest of eaters to go ahead and "take a taste."
Right now, farmers markets and produce aisles are stocked with this fascinating vegetable that hails from the Lazio region of Italy and was once enjoyed by ancient Romans. It arrived in the U.S. in the early 1990s, but only recently has become popular enough for farmers to grow for consumer markets.
When choosing romanesco, look for vibrant-colored full and heavy heads with firm, solid stems that show no signs of wilting. The leaves attached to the base should be perky and bright. When you bring the romanesco home, place a damp kitchen towel or paper towel over the head and store it in a perforated plastic bag in the refrigerator, stem up. Condensation on the florets causes discoloration and decay.
Enjoy this pretty vegetable as you would in any recipe calling for cauliflower. The florets may be broken, then blanched quickly and chilled for use in salads and on the appetizer trays or tossed into stir-fries and sautés. They're fabulous roasted; to do so, simply drizzle the florets with a little oil and sprinkle with salt, spread on a baking sheet and put into a hot oven until they turn a deep caramel brown; serve splashed with fresh lemon juice. A sprinkle of toasted almonds or hazelnuts highlights romanesco's distinctive nutty, earthy flavor.
The whole head is so remarkable that I hate to break it up, especially because unlike cauliflower, the romanesco will stay intact and retain its dense texture when cooked whole.
To serve, cut the head into wedges, as you might a cake, and finish with a light cream or cheese sauce or seasoned melted butter.
The bottom leaves are delicious, so don't cut them off — just trim the stem so that it balances upright. The only trick is not to overcook, because you want the vegetable to retain its shape and not turn to mush when it's cut. Serve it tableside on a bed of rice, barley or wild rice, and pass additional sauce alongside.
Beth Dooley is the author of "In Winter's Kitchen." Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.