Recent talk of Nobel Prizes and god particles filled me with curiosity last week. Then again, I spend most of my day navigating the glamorous world of charred meat so it really doesn’t take much to astonish me these days. Some would argue that a cook’s relationship to protein does have its own cosmic story. Everything I handle once lived here on earth with us but faced its end at the hands of something bigger than itself, that is true. But generally it’s difficult to find poetry in the day to day. The physiology of life, the predictability of heat and its effects on blood, flesh, sinew, bone. Most of the time it just feels like cooking. And none of it is even half as mysterious or interesting as Romanesco.
I admit to staring at Romanesco a little too long when I first laid eyes on it, not unlike that moment when you walk past a beautiful woman on the street. I think it was the mesmerizing quality, its ability to capture order so naturally, that got my attention. It was the kind of thing that anyone who spends their days creating order, pattern and pleasure for others would truly appreciate. I see it in designers, musicians, artisans–those who work tirelessly and with purpose to achieve magic.
Romanesco was cultivated in 16th Century Italy, where my culinary universe itself began to expand like an infinite black mass. My wife told me to take a trip with her that she had already been on (she always wants me to see cool things that she has already seen). We walked through ruins, across sleepy countrysides and vineyards, and over rocky shorelines that Vikings haunted. From a hilltop patio, we ate Branzino from the Mediterranean and watched the sun set over the sea as church bells echoed from heaven. It was a brief but perfect introduction to food for pleasure; food for company. I remember everything we said and how doing nothing in particular felt full and complete.
When we got back to New York, I realized that I had just been hustling and bullshitting my way through this town with no order or purpose. I felt like I had wasted most of my days before her being an ornery drunk at my favorite bar after pulling obscene shifts as lowest-common-denominator in various shitshow kitchens. I wanted to tell my parents that I was doing something important and working toward my dreams, but I was really just binging on free booze and skating by on some good instincts and passable knife skills.
It was a dark time, but somehow required reading for becoming a real-life New Yorker. Apparently, that can sometimes involve bathing in the wretchedness of your own shit until your hard work results in something incredible. Things did get a little better before they got worse, and then they got better again. Now life is just happening and I see everything before and after me like distant stars with their inevitable beginnings and endings. Romanesco.
The most tedious if not practical part of preparing Romanesco is the shock. If you’ve never shocked a vegetable before, then you might want to try at least once and enjoy the lightly maintained, nutty sweetness and perfect texture that comes from a good old-fashioned shocking. It basically involves creating an ice bath for your blanched vegetable. As the bewitching love-child of broccoli and cauliflower, Romanesco is the perfect candidate for this extra little step. Such a beguiling character can not simply be boiled, broiled, steamed, or fried. It must be treated with the care and attention deserved of its purposeful little breed.
It’s the season of Romanesco at work and no, my daily interactions with the beauty probably do not awe me as they used to. Just as the love I feel today does not much resemble the love I felt at 18. Now I just see it come and go on the arm of vibrant (and probably much wealthier, more well-connected) lobster and quietly reminisce about first-kisses and nervous hands fumbling in the dark. The mysteries of its shape and origins, though, cannot just be given away to the highest paying customer. To have appreciation for things beyond calculation is a treasure bestowed to a lucky few. I am happy to say that the chronicle of how it came to me over space and time – that will always be mine.