“We thought it was kind of handy, take a trip and never leave the farm”. Those were the words that popped into my mind after I harvested my first head of Romanesco cauliflower. It may not be quite the same trip that Mr. Stafford is referring to in the song “The Wildwood Weed”, but what a long strange trip I have been on with this freakish vegetable.
“Cauliflower on acid” is how one garden described this fractal fare in the Fedco Seed Catalog. Take care not to gaze too deeply or else you may be sucked into its infinity. The three dimensional self-similar patterning creating a mathematically correct recursive helical arrangement of cones can take you to the edge and beyond.
All the psychedelia aside, Romanesco is more than just eye candy. It is a lovely alternative to the many more common cole crops on our autumn table. Mild earthy flavors with nutty overtones set Romanesco apart from standard cauliflower. Some people feel its flavor is a cross between broccoli and cauliflower. I do not find this to be the case.
Romanesco can be used in any recipe calling for standard cauliflower. It is fine for cream soups and gratins, but I prefer to use recipes that keep the florets in tact for eye appeal.
Several seed catalogs and many gardeners refer too Romanesco as Broccoli. It is actually a cauliflower. Kale, Brussel Sprouts, Cabbage, Collards, Broccoli and cauliflower all belong to the species Brassica oleracea. Kale and Collards most resemble the wild relative. Within the species there are seven cultivar groups. Broccoli has been placed in the Italica group and Romanesco in the Botrytis group along with cauliflower and broccoflower. Recent DNA evidence also places Romanesco into the Botrytis group. The best evidence resides in its growth habit. It looks like cauliflower.
In the Ohio River Valley, Romanesco is best grown as a fall crop. It needs to mature in cooler weather to produce large tight heads. Spring plantings maturing into the warmer temperatures of summer often form small loose heads and bolt prematurely.
Seeds are sown late May to early June into plug trays, moved to 3” pots and finally moved into the garden in late July.
Romanesco is a heavy feeder. Without ample fertility to promote luxurious growth, small or no heading will occur. A non-brassica green manure crop tilled in several weeks prior to planting is very beneficial.
Although the recent 14 degree weather put an end to this years Romanesco season, the 2014 seed catalogs have started arriving just in time to start planning for next years freakish fall fractal fare.