Romanesco entered my life in adulthood. Had it shown up earlier, my life could have taken a much different path. Perhaps this website would have been Tangent & Wave instead of Thread & Whisk. Let me explain. I was the kind of kid who played with my food. Not because I didn't like it. Just the opposite. Kind of like daydreaming, but food-dreaming instead. Some habits stick for a lifetime. Years later, peeling roasted beets tests my impulse control to not finger-paint across my kitchen, or at least dab the ruby-colored juice across the lips of anyone nearby. Just looking at romanesco can astound me how nature, design, math and science smacked into each other in no particular order. As a kid, its beautiful spirals would have delighted me and I would have wondered how and why they came to be. As a grownup, the concept of the Fibonacci sequence has meandered through a few math and art classes along the way to explain the spirals, but I'm still in awe every single time I see them.
In the 13th century, Fibonacci published his mathematical ideas that discussed a certain numerical pattern that can be used to describe a variety of phenomena in math, science, art and nature. 1,1,2,3,5,8,13,21, 34,55,89,144,... The pattern isn't immediately recognizable. Start with 1+1 and get 2. Add the previous number to it to get to 3, keep going to get 5. 3+5=8, and so on. Chart those numbers on a graph and apply it to the world around and you will be amazed with the unfurling spiral that nature has to show you. Focus in on the tip of a tiny minaret protruding from any branch of romanesco. Follow it as it goes around and around. Let your gaze wander through your kitchen beyond the romanesco. Notice the arrangement of leaves on an artichoke or peel away the layers of a head of cabbage. Seeds, leaves, petals and pinecones can follow this number sequence to create a spiraling pattern.
Isn't nature smart as hell? It understands higher math. It is higher math. The pattern might seem kind of random and beautiful, but it also serves a function. In some cases, it can maximize the number of seeds that can be packed into a seed head. In others, it can permit optimum sun exposure to each leaf. And the list of reasons goes on. Has your brain been tickled? I hope so. Here are two interesting sources to keep the excitement going about Fibonacci in nature and the Fibonacci Sequence.
Romanesco is such a beautiful, complex-looking vegetable that it begs to be prepared simply. Brassica oleracea, its scientific name, is thought by many botanists to be the result of selective breeding by Italian farmers in the 16th century. Seriously? It took five centuries to make it to my kitchen? Simplicity can start with one head of romanesco and finish with a sauté pan, olive oil, salt and pepper. How much more you add to it depends on how far you want to spiral out from your center.
Romanesco, Simply Prepared
(Serves 4 as a side dish)
1 head of romanesco
2-3 Tbsp olive oil, plus a drizzle to finish
2 cloves of garlic, minced
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
1/2 tsp pink peppercorns, crushed
Salt to taste
This dish comes together in the blink of an eye. Have all your ingredients ready before you turn on the flame. Using a pairing knife, cut the stems off of the head of romanesco so that a miniature Tuscan tree forest is left on your cutting board. Slice through the larger clusters vertically so that they are about 1/4 - 1/3 inch thick. Leave the spiral clusters that are the size of your fingernail whole.
Add olive oil to a large sauté pan over medium heat. Allow the oil to warm up for about 30-60 seconds so that when you put the palm of your hand 6 inches over the pan, you can feel its warmth. Do not allow the oil to start smoking at this point. It will burn your romanesco and will taste bitter. Start over if you need to. It’s worth it.
Add the romanesco to the pan, spreading it out to a single layer. Using tongs or a spatula, as the larger slices start to get slightly brown (after about a minute), turn them over. Gently toss the smaller clusters around so they all get some surface time with the pan. Sprinkle with a little salt.
As the second side of the sliced romanesco starts to gain color, sample a small piece for doneness. It tastes best al dente, like pasta. Not mushy but not raw, somewhere in-between. Just before you turn off the flame, toss in the garlic and give it a stir. Turn off the flame and slide the romanesco into a bowl. Add the lemon juice, zest, peppercorns, a bit more salt and a drizzle of olive oil.