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Seriously Italian: Broccoli Romanesco

[Photographs: Gina DePalma]

Oh, Broccoli Romanesco, how I love you. You're delicious and creepy and weird, like an alien vegetable. I know you are misunderstood, but that's only to people who are put off by your freakish appearance and won't take a chance. I, however, understand you completely, and appreciate you to boot. Now jump into this pot of boiling water.

How about you, dear reader? Are you the type that is startled by a vegetable with bizarre, pointed, conical spheres jutting out of it? Be brave, and take my word for it, there is an ample reward waiting. Cavolo broccolo romanesco, as it is officially known in Italian, is surprisingly sweet and mild when cooked tender, more like its close cousin the cauliflower but with a denser texture that holds up well to different cooking methods.

The chill of the autumn market brings broccoli romanesco front and center, both here in New York as well as in its native Rome. A native of Lazio, this vegetable has a noble past, dating back to the days of Julius Caesar. As an occasional Roman resident, broccoli romanesco is that perennial favorite that arrives to brighten my mood when trattoria tables move indoors with the chilly weather. Along with puntarella and fresh oranges, it is one of the few things that makes Rome's rainy season bearable.

Some suggestions for how to cook broccoli romanesco, after the jump.

Cooking it as a Vegetable Dish

Broccoli romanesco is both economical and versatile. The heads are deceptive in size—start separating the florets and it never seems to end, which allows for a bit of experimenting with each purchase. The most basic—and sublime—way to enjoy it is steamed or boiled with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a generous splash of olive oil. The firm, compact nature of the florets make it a natural addition to a verdure fritto misto (mixed fried vegetables), and if you want get your fancy on, try broccoli romanesco with brown butter and crispy shallots.

Pairing it with Pasta

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Like other forms of broccoli and cabbage, the noble romanesco pairs perfectly with pasta. I like to use the smaller florets for that purpose and use a diminutive pasta shape like ditalini—little tubes, or mezze rigatoni. My simple method for pasta with broccoli romanesco can be adapted to include other ingredients, but in its most basic format, garlic, olive oil and bit of peperoncino is really all you need.

Blanch the florets in plenty of boiling, salted water until they just turn tender, and shock them in an ice bath to stop the cooking. Sauté sliced garlic and a bit of crushed red pepper flakes in olive oil. You can add a little tomato paste to the pan for an extra layer of flavor. Add the broccoli romanesco florets and sauté briefly, make sure the florets are well coated with olive oil, then toss everything with the al dente pasta and a splash of the pasta cooking water. Grate over plenty of Pecorino Romano off the heat. It isn't often that something so weird looking becomes something so delicious.

About the author: Gina DePalma is the pastry chef at Mario Batali's Babbo restaurant in New York City and the author of Dolce Italiano: Desserts from the Babbo Kitchen. After a stint in Rome, she's back in the States, channeling her inner Italian spirit via recipes and intel on delicious Italian eats.

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