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Local And Seasonal: Romanesco with Salsa Verde

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With its bewitching shape and stunning chartreuse color, romanesco looks more like an objet d'art than a humble vegetable. It has a spiraling pointed head composed of smaller spiraling cones. Each cone is itself made up of even smaller cones, and this natural fractal pattern continues on ad infinitum. Romanesco is worth picking up at the market for its mesmerizing looks alone, but it also happens to be quite tasty.

The flavor of romanesco falls somewhere between that of broccoli and that of cauliflower. Sweet, mild, and pleasantly vegetal, romanesco is less bitter than the former and more tender than the latter. It is as delicious on its own, boiled briefly then drizzled with really good olive oil, as it is paired with bold flavors such as anchovy, capers, and mustard. For a quick weeknight dinner, try sautéing bite-sized pieces of romanesco with red chile pepper and garlic, then tossing them with cooked pasta. Romanesco and all of the closely related members of the cabbage family--Brussels sprouts, kale, collard greens, kohlrabi, and others--are nutritional powerhouses, packed with antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

Botanists believe 16th century Italian farmers were the first to cultivate romanesco. The Italian name, cavolo broccolo romanesco, signifies Rome, the plant's native land. Today, the vegetable remains popular throughout Italy, but has only been commercially grown in the United States for the past couple of decades. Look for it as soon as chilly weather arrives. Romanesco can be a bit fussy to grow because it prefers cold but not too cold temperatures. Lucky for Californians, romanesco is usually harvested all the way through our moderate winter season, from November until the beginning of spring. Store it in the refrigerator, sealed tightly in a bag. Even though it is spectacular to behold, romanesco should be cooked sooner rather than later because it tastes best freshly picked.

Romanesco with Salsa Verde
Salsa verde, the traditional Italian green sauce, is often made with parsley, but any tender green herb will do. I like to use cilantro for an especially zippy, citrusy sauce, which partners beautifully with roasted romanesco.

Serves 4 as a first course or side

1½ pound romanesco
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 small cloves garlic, peeled
Zest and juice of 2 lemons
1½ cups cilantro leaves
2 ounces Castelvetrano olives, pitted and thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 425°F.

Peel away the dark green outer leaves of the romanesco. (The leaves are edible and quite flavorful; try sautéing them in olive oil.) Using your hands, gently break the entire head into small, bite-sized florets. Spread them on a baking sheet, drizzle with 4 tablespoons olive oil, sprinkle with ½ teaspoon salt and a few grinds of pepper, and toss to coat each floret. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until the florets are tender all the way through and a little caramelized around the edges.

Meanwhile, in the bowl of a food processor fitted with a metal blade, combine the garlic, lemon zest and juice, cilantro, remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil, and ½ teaspoon salt. Blend until smooth.

In a large bowl, toss the roasted romanesco with the salsa verde and the olives. Taste for seasoning, adding another pinch of salt if needed. Serve warm or cooled to room temperature. The romanesco is also delicious chilled overnight and eaten for lunch on the following day.

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