Romanesco: Delicious, Beautiful

Robin Torquati, owner of Heaven On Earth Starts, grows and sells more than 150 varieties of open-pollinated start vegetables, culinary herbs and medicinal plants. These baby plants are ready for the garden and have been grown from organic seeds. About 20 percent of the seeds that Torquati uses are saved from plants grown in her garden.

Torquati has been gardening on Kaua’i for 15 years and selling plant starts for three. Every Wednesday from noon to 1 p.m. she co-hosts KKCR’s Back to the Garden radio show with Kamran Taleb and Paul Massey. She also volunteers for Regenerations Botanical Gardens and Kaua’i Seed Exchange, which serve to collect, regenerate and distribute plants and seeds that grow well on Kaua’i.

What’s growing: Basil, beets, cauliflower (Cheddar, Graffiti and Romanesco), kale (curly, rainbow, lacinato), leeks, onions, passion fruit, peas, peanuts, rainbow chard, sage and thyme.

ROMANESCO

Romanesco’s lime green spires approximate a natural fractal. Each bud is composed of a series of smaller buds, arranged in another spiral. The pattern is an approximate fractal because it eventually terminates when the feature size becomes small. Sometimes called Romanesco broccoli or Roman cauliflower, the sweet-tasting vegetable is a hybrid of broccoli and cauliflower. Considered an heirloom cauliflower, it’s native to Italy, where it has been cultivated since the 16th century. Crisp heads have a mild grassy, vegetal taste when eaten raw. Cooked lightly, the flavor is sweet and nutty.

Season: Romanesco is a cold-season crop and takes about 85 days to grow from start to harvest. On Kaua’i, it grows best from October to February. They are ready to harvest when the green heads have a light pink blush.

What to look for: Select Romanesco with firm, dense heads, tight curds and no bruises.

Storage: Romanesco will store for up to three days in the refrigerator, but loses its sweetness as it sits. Torquati recommends eating them right after you harvest it from your own garden.

Tip: Regarding starts, Torquati says they need plenty of sunlight and water. Seedlings grown in the shade are leggy and do not grow well once planted in the garden.

Preparation: Tender, fresh Romanesco can be served raw, steamed or blanched with seasoned salts or dips. Add Romanesco to curries, pastas, stews and salads. The leaves and stems are delicious and can be cooked with the florets. Torquati prefers to blanch florets in salted water for five minutes before tossing with butter, sea salt and freshly ground pepper. Romanesco pairs well with butter, olive oil, mustard oil, garlic, red pepper flakes, paprika, curry, parsley, tarragon, Cheddar, Parmesan, Gruyere, blue cheese, strong greens, sundried tomatoes, saffron and green olives.

Health benefits: Romanesco is rich in vita-min C, vitamin K, dietary fiber and carotenoids. Carotenoids are a group of phytochemicals that are responsible for the different colors of fruit and vegetables.

Recognized as playing an important role in the prevention of human diseases and maintaining good health, carotenoids are potent antioxidants and contribute to dietary vitamin A.

Heaven on Earth Starts can be found at: The Start Cart in front of Hoku Natural Foods and Aiyah’s Garden in Kapa’a. Every Saturday from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Torquati sells a large variety of starts at Namahana Farmers Market. Starts also are available to farmers. For more information, call 652-1431 or email heavenonearthstarts@gmail. com.

CRUDITéS DIP

Crudités are traditional French appetizers of vegetables dipped in a vinaigrette or dipping sauce. Vegetables can be sliced or whole, and served raw or blanched.

The keys to making crudités delightful are to choose absolutely fresh vegetables and cut them artfully. Cut Romanesco crowns into florets, slice stems into batons, and blanch.

Robin Torquati shares her recipe for this thick, tangy dip. Makes six servings.

* 2 cups good-quality plain yogurt, preferably organic, strained through cheesecloth or 1 1/2 cups Greek yogurt
* 1/2 cup cream cheese
* 1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
* 1/4 teaspoon black pepper

Add a hardy handful of basil, cilantro, chives, dill and parsley (all or some) and mix with ingredients in blender for 30 seconds. Serve with fresh vegetables such as asparagus, string beans, sugar snap peas, cucumber, tomato, cauliflower, broccoli, carrots, fennel, jicama, kohlrabi, turnips, peppers, radishes or celery.

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit TastingKauai.com.

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