Some vegetables are born showoffs. It may be because they're loud (super-sized pumpkins), blousy (curly kale), or just plain beautiful. The Romanesco cauliflower fits into the latter category, and the precision of its intricate, geometric heads, or curds, really does earn it admiration.
The Romanesco is a member of the cabbage family. For the sake of this article and to keep things 'tidy' I've called it a cauliflower. But, the truth is, it's in a class of its own – neither cauliflower nor broccoli but somewhere in-between. Hailing from northern Italy, this approximately 500-year-old brassica has all the hallmarks of Italian design. It's suave. It's sophisticated. And it promises impeccably good taste!
Stare into its fractal curds and you really begin to appreciate the sheer wonder of nature. Grow it for yourself and you may struggle to bring yourself to eat this good looker. If you can, prepare to be rewarded with a sweet, nutty flavour and crisp texture that makes this showoff taste every bit as good as it looks.
Sowing Romanesco Cauliflower Seed
Sow from spring to midsummer to give a succession of curds. Like all brassicas, Romanesco cauliflower is best started off in a fertile seedbed or in modules of seed compost. I prefer using generous-sized module trays because this produces really solid plants, while minimising root disturbance at planting out time. Aim for a cell size that's at least 5cm (2in) across. Start your earliest seedlings off under the protection of an unheated greenhouse or cold frame.
Sow the seeds 1cm (0.5in) deep, sowing two to three seeds per cell. They can be thinned out to leave the strongest seedling once they have all germinated. Given a little warmth they may pop up in as little as four days, but allow up to two weeks. The seeds need a minimum temperature of 10°C/50°F to germinate but once they're up the daytime temperature can happily hover around 7°C/45°F with no negative impacts on the seedlings.
Young plants that have been started off under cover will need to be hardened off before they are planted out. This will stop them from sulking at the sudden transition from relative warmth to cold. Hardening off is especially important in temperate regions or in a slow season where spring is late in arriving. To harden plants off, leave them outside during the day and bring them back under cover at night, gradually increasing the length of time plants are out of doors over a period of one to two weeks.
Planting Out Strong Seedlings
Romanesco cauliflowers need fertile soil – perhaps improved over the winter with plenty of well-rotted manure or compost. A final flurry of bone meal or similar organic fertiliser at planting time will encourage strong root growth.
Plant seedlings out into their final positions once they are 10-15cm (4-6in) tall. The closer the spacing, the smaller the curds, so it's really up to you how far or near you plant. I aim for 60cm (2ft) between plants and 60-90cm (2-3ft) between rows. This might seem like a lot of space, but you can always sow a quick-to-mature catch crop, such as salad leaves or radishes, in-between the rows while the plants are still young and don't need that extra space.
To plant, dig a hole for each plant then ease the root ball from its module, disturbing the roots as little as possible. Firm in really well then 'puddle' the soil around the plant by thoroughly watering the ground to further settle the soil around the roots.
Once the plants are in the tricky bit's over – just keep your Italian charmers well watered in dry weather (water at the base of the plant to avoid splashing the leaves) and check and treat for insect pests such as cutworm.
Cooking Romanesco Cauliflower
When it comes to cooking Romanesco cauliflower, less is definitely more. Prepare harvested curds by rinsing them under cold water before cutting out the central stalk so that the individual florets fall away. Plunge the prepared florets into a pan of boiling salted water and cook for no more than five minutes. You can also steam them.
Serve with a grind of salt and pepper and perhaps a small knob of butter for a luxuriant finish. The florets are delicious partnered with Parmesan cheese, a hint of lemon juice or roasted garlic cloves. Or serve the florets raw for a crunchy texture in salads.
Photograph at top of page courtesy of Suttons Seeds