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I first came across this extraordinary-looking vegetable a couple of years ago at New York’s Union Square farmers market, attracted by its chartreuse hue and mesmerizing fractal pattern. A sign at the stand proclaimed it to be “romanesco cauliflower”. When I bought it this past week from the Capay Organic store at the Ferry Building, I was told it was a kind of broccoli. I’ve also seen it sold as Broccoli Romanesco, Roman broccoli and Broccoflower. According to Elizabeth Schneider’s exhaustive reference, “Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini”, the consensus among plant breeders is that it’s a kind of cauliflower.

Regardless of what branch of brassica oleracea it most closely hews to, it’s delicious. It tastes like cauliflower, but with a distinct, pleasing nutty quality and a nubbly texture that sets it apart from both broccoli and cauliflower.

I cooked mine two ways – I blanched a batch of it just to see what the unadulterated taste of it was like; and I slow-cooked it in a variation of a recipe from Alice Waters’ new book. While it is very pleasant lightly cooked on its own, slow-cooking it turned it soft and meltingly velvety, which was a nice surprise.

Here are 2 ideas for what to do with this broccoli/cauliflower/whatever next time you can’t resist buying it:

Blanched Romanesco Cauliflower:

Bring 4 c of water to a rolling boil. Snap all the stems off from the central stalk and set aside. Then, quarter the stem crosswise. Salt the water; toss in the cauliflower and cover. Cook 3 minutes, or up to 5 if you prefer the end result to be a bit more tender.

Slow-cooked Romanesco Cauliflower:

1 head romanesco cauliflower (about 1 1/2 lbs)
3 medium cloves garlic
3 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp bacon fat (optional)
1/2 c vegetable or chicken stock

Cut the cauliflower into 1/4 inch slices crosswise, then mince. Mince the garlic. Heat the olive oil and bacon fat (if you’re using it) in a heavy-bottomed pan and sautee the garlic lightly. Add the cauliflower, stir to coat in oil, add stock, reduce heat to low and cover. Cook for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid as necessary. Salt to taste.

This makes a really nice omelette stuffing, and is also great over angel hair pasta with bits of bacon or prosciutto.

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From top, clockwise: miso-pickled turnip greens, broiled salmon skin, stewed pumpkin, kinpira, Hakurei turnip pickles

As my last few posts attest, I’ve been on a bit of a Japanese food bender these days. Around New Year’s, I start to feel a little homesick for my parents’ cooking and start making things that I used to wish would disappear or turn into pizza when I was a kid. I started to have a hankering for the kind of foods my mom will often cook in big batches on Sunday to have for breakfast through the week, and the results were quite satisfactory.
Here are a couple of recipes:

Kinpira:
This dish is usually made either with burdock root or carrots (not both), but I like the combination of the two together plus a handful of hijiki seaweed.

1/2 lb burdock root
1/2 lb carrots
1/2 cup dried hijiki seaweed
sesame oil
soy sauce
2 tsp brown sugar, molasses or maple syrup

Peel and slice burdock into matchsticks (about 3 inches long and 1/2 cm wide) and set in a bowl of cold water + 1 tblsp vinegar. This is to keep the burdock from discoloring. Peel and slice carrots in the same way. Submerge hijiki in cold water; drain when softened and about quadrupled in size.

Heat one tbsp of sesame oil in a frying pan. Add chopped burdock root and carrots, plus about 2 tbsp of soy sauce (or less, if you like your food less salty). Stir-fry about 3 minutes, then sprinkle brown sugar/molasses/maple syrup over the vegetables and add the drained hijiki. Stir-fry another 10 minutes. Done!

Stewed pumpkin:
For this batch, I used a small Jarrahdale pumpkin I got from Paradise Valley Produce the last time I visited. The standard squash to use is some sort of kabocha, which is sweeter and starchier than the Jarrahdale, which is somewhat bland but has a moister, more yam-like texture.

1 3lb winter squash or pumpkin (not a Sugar Pie or Cinderella, as these will not hold up in the stewing pot)
2 cups dashi or fish stock
1/4 c soy sauce
1 inch-long piece of fresh ginger, peeled and sliced thinly crosswise
brown sugar/molasses/maple syrup to taste
3 tbsp sake

Cut the squash in half and scoop out the seeds and veins, then slice lengthwise into 1/2 inch crescents lengthwise. Heat dashi together with the ginger slices until it reaches a slow boil. Mix in the soy sauce, sweetener (I say “to taste” b/c the sweetness of this dish can vary very widely) and the sake. Then, add the squash slices and turn heat down to a simmer. Simmer about 40 minutes, or until the squash is soft all the way through.

Note: I’m a little alarmed to find that health warnings have been issued in a number of countries (the U.K., New Zealand, Canada and Hong Kong) advising people to avoid consumption of hijiki due to high arsenic levels. Not quite sure what to make of it – I’ve been eating it all my life and I’m not dead yet; on the other hand, the same could be said of a lot of things that aren’t healthy. Decide for yourself. Kinpira is just as good without it and I certainly don’t want to be accused to poisoning anyone with Japanese food!

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Which, for me, is this kind of thing:

Broiled mackerel with grated daikon, miso soup, brown rice w/ stir-fried hijiki and parboiled green beans with sesame seeds

That’s pretty much the sort of thing my mom always made at home – some kind of broiled fish, very simply prepared vegetables, miso soup and rice with a couple of rotating accompaniments like salt pickled turnips, sauteed lotus root, burdock kinpira, or stewed chicken.

I realize that probably sounds kind of weird, and certainly, it used to be a source of tremendous consternation to me that my mom never made me any “normal” food. This was especially true at lunchtime in elementary school, when everyone would take out their lunch boxes and start trading things like strawberry Fruit Roll-Ups and juice boxes feverishly.

Now that I’m older and don’t live at home, I get a hankering for that food every now and again, and thankfully, it’s really easy to make. I think some people find the idea of cooking Japanese food at home kind of intimidating because of all the unfamiliar ingredients, and the cultivated esotericism of the typical unsmiling sushi chefs encountered in Japanese restaurants. But it isn’t difficult to make a straightforward meal like the one pictured above:

Parboiled green beans with sesame seeds:

  • Cut the tips off a quarter pound of green beans
  • Drop beans into water that has reached a rolling boil; cook 2 minutes, or until the beans have about the give of the flesh on the tip of your index finger.
  • Remove from heat and plunge into ice water. Drain.
  • Dress with a dash of sesame oil and a sprinkling of sesame seeds – or just a dab of mayonnaise.

Hijiki stir- fry:

  • Submerge 1/2 cup of hijiki in cold water, set aside until it expands to about 3 times the original size; drain
  • Peel and quarter a carrot lengthwise; cut into thin, fan-shaped slices
  • Sautee the carrot slices in 2 tbsp sesame oil until semi-soft
  • Add the drained hijiki and continue stir-frying for about 5 minutes, adding 1 tsp brown sugar and 1 tbsp soy sauce (you can adjust to taste – I prefer less sugar than some people)

Broiled mackerel:

  • Set oven to broil
  • If using a whole mackerel, slit the fish from the tip of the jaw down the belly to the tail; scoop the innards out (Or just leave them, if you don’t mind fish innards. I find them kind of bitter.) Rinse and pat dry. Make two cuts on either side of the head to splay the body open like a book.
  • Salt lightly, then brush with any kind of cooking oil you want – safflower, soybean oil, sunflower, sesame, whatever.
  • Broil with cut side facing up for about 10 minutes, or until the meat on the inside browns – keep a careful eye on the fish so it doesn’t burn
  • Serve w/ finely grated daikon radish and a spot of soy sauce

I usually just cook my rice in a rice cooker, so I can turn it on and ignore it while I’m making everything else. Easy-peasy!

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