The sculptural and slightly other-worldly Romanesco has not been around for long – at least not in Australia. This pale green beauty been grown in Italy for centuries and is covered by many tiny spiral buds that spiral upwards to a point. I have read that the number of buds that make up each spiral is a Fibonacci sequence which sounds a bit like maths, but is clearly a genius of nature. So….what is it exactly? In English it goes by the name Roman cauliflower, or Romanesco broccoli, and in Italian it is called broccolo Romano (or broccolo Romanesco) or cavolo verde – so it seems that we are all unsure whether it is broccoli or cauliflower. The firmness of the buds and taste and definitely closer to a cauliflower, though nuttier and firmer.
I posted a photo of the Romanesco on instagram a few days ago, asking for suggestions for a recipe. The first ones to respond were some friends living in Rome, where it is a staple of winter markets. Suggestions ranged from eating it raw with a vinaigrette; steamed and eaten with olive oil and sea salt; roasted with garlic, olive oil and sea salt; roasted then made into a soup with onion, chilli and guanciale; roasted then made into a sauce for pasta either with anchovies or with chilli and pancetta. So many options! I liked the pasta suggestion best as I would be able to keep some of the florets whole, so I followed the suggestion of my friend Alice, a Melbourne girl living in Rome who is not only a very good cook but runs Latteria studio, a beautiful cooking space and studios, which I used in May when I was cooking and shooting some dishes for Adriatico, my next cook book.
I broke up the Romanesco into florets, tossed it in extra virgin olive oil and roasted it; then cooked up some pancetta and dried chilli and added the roasted Romanesco (keeping florets aside for garnish and eating quite a few of them, just as they were, sweet and nutty). Alice suggested cooking them until they turned into a chartreuse cream in the sauce, but I couldn’t wait that long…
This type of sauce, punchy, salty and textured needs a dense semolina-based pasta, rather then delicate egg-fettuccine. I used casarecce, from Zecca Handmade Italian, which were a rustic perfection. You could also use cavatelli or orecchiette for the dish. If you are interested to try the Romanesco, mine was grown on the Mornington Peninsula and available from the Prahran market. Being able to make Italian dishes using great quality local ingredients makes me think how far we have come with our food culture here in Australia since my parents migrated in the 1950s. Back then vegetables like broccolo Romano and radicchio di Treviso were only available in the memories of those who had migrated, and most common type of spaghetti was the one you bought in a tin (unbelievable but true). Buon appetito!
casarecce con broccolo Romano e pancetta
350g your favourite pasta (eg. orecchiette, cavatelli, casarecce)
1 head Romanesco (or use cauliflower if that is all you can find)
100g pancetta, cut into batons
2-3 dried red chillies (or the equivalent in chilli flakes)
2 + 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
pecorino Romano (or parmesan) to serve
Preheat the oven to 200C. Break the Romanesco into florets, place in a large bowl and drizzle on two tablespoons of the olive oil. Using your hands, coat the florets in olive oil. Place on a lined baking tray and roast for about 20 minutes until they are charred and cooked to your liking (the cooking time will depend on the size of your florets, start checking after 10 minutes if they are small).
Place the pancetta in a medium-sized pan and cook on low heat (adding a bit of olive oil if there isn’t much fat on your pancetta) for about ten minutes until the fat has rendered. Add the chopped dried chilli (or chilli flakes), the roasted Romanesco (reserving some florets for later) and a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil. Keep cooking and stirring occasionally until the Romanesco has started to break down (and cook further if you want it to turn into a cream).
Boil a pot of salted water and cook your pasta according to the manufacturer’s instructions, reserving half a cup of pasta cooking water (just in case you need it for the sauce). Drain the pasta and toss in with the sauce, making sure the pasta is well coated and adding a bit of reserved pasta water if it is too dry.
Garnish with reserved florets and serve on warmed plates. You can also drizzle on a bit of EVOO if you like and make sure you scatter on plenty of cheese.