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Hurrah for Broccoli Romanesco

Art, math and science display all in one delicious, exotic vegetable.

By Kristin Belz August 23, 2012 Published in the August 2012 issue of Portland Monthly

They may look like just two heads of Broccoli Romanesco, but these beauties are also examples of fractals in nature.

Image: Kristin Belz

I love art, but a recent trip to the Kenton farmers market made me think: Who needs art when we have vegetables? The gorgeousness of some of the produce on display was stunning; I could categorize it as “found art” of the utmost beauty and quality. That it was edible seemed just an extra.

Red bell peppers mottled with green; crinkly, curly, dark green globes of Savoy cabbages; shiny smooth and shapely eggplants – all were lovely to look at. But the star, the real visual stunner, was the Romanesco. I’ve seen them before, and eaten them too, but this cousin of broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage doesn’t get out often, to the market or anywhere else. When it does, you notice.

The Romanesco is an amazingly shaped, geometrically intricate almost fluorescent light green vegetable. It looks like a head of broccoli whose florets are from some not yet discovered planet, the precisely pointy-headed alien equivalent of the run of the mill broccoli and cauliflower we’re accustomed to.

But the Romanesco isn’t just a weird, cool-looking vegetable, or even an edible art lesson. Turns out it’s also a math and science display, because it’s a fractal.

And a fractal is...well, I was an English major, and I never got real far in math, so I’ll hand it over to Merriam-Webster here: a fractal is “any of various extremely irregular curves or shapes for which any suitably chosen part is similar in shape to a given larger or smaller part when magnified or reduced to the same size.” Merriam-Webster states it more simply for kids a fractal is “an irregular shape that looks the same at any scale on which it is examined.”

Wolfram MathWorld explains it even better: “A fractal is an object or quantity that displays self-similarity, in a somewhat technical sense, on all scales. The object need not exhibit exactly the same structure at all scales, but the same "type" of structures must appear on all scales.”

A snowflake, a fern leaf, a pinecone and a seashell are other fractals we see in nature. John Walker, in his article Fractal Food, explains, the Romanesco’s “shape approximates a natural fractal; each bud is composed of a series of smaller buds, all arranged in yet another logarithmic spiral. This self-similar pattern continues at several smaller levels.”

The “number of spirals on the head of Romanesco broccoli is a Fibonacci number, ” which itself has to do with the Golden Section or Golden Rectangle, which has a lot to do with architecture... But that's another story! Let’s get back to the kitchen before my head explodes.

I'll keep the recipe simple. It's from Aaron on Chowhound, borrowed (and paraphrased) from Deborah Madison.

Romanesco with Mustard-Caper Butter
Cut Romanesco into bite sized pieces. Boil in salted water for 5 minutes, until tender. Drain and toss with a mustard-caper butter
Mustard-caper butter
Pound 2 garlic cloves with salt in a mortar and pestle until smooth. Stir into 6 tablespoons butter along with 2 teaspoons dijon, 1/4 cup drained small capers, zest of one lemon, and 3 tablespoons chopped marjoram (though any herb will do). Season to taste.

Now I better go do my math homework. If you're still up for cooking, also try Gina DePalma's recipe for Broccoli Romanesco with Pasta.

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