Romanesco

Romanesco: The king of weird.

 

Noble peaks of vegetal psychedelia
Knobbled peaks of vegetal psychedelia

 

As I was riding home the other day, I dropped into a little liquor store on the corner of Zuni and 32nd street. Placing my six-pack on the counter, I started chatting with the guys at the register. Turns out they’re both from Mongolia. From there the conversation led to, of course, you guessed it — horses and hills and yurts and the Chinese government and development and why Colorado? It reminds us of home, they said in unison. We have peaks like yours and the climate is the same — like today — rain, snow, sunshine — crazy. Is it spring, is it winter? Maybe he meant to say mountains, but when he said peaks I thought of something knobbled, like crazy knobbled peaks.

On my way home as I peddled and puzzled over dinner, thinking, what does one eat on a day like this? Asparagus — which is slowly beginning to show up from local sources— or does one stick with winter comestibles? A schizophrenic day, I reasoned, requires a schizophrenic vegetable, which brought my thoughts to Romanesco— those knobbled peaks of vegetal psychedelia. Could be from outer Mongolia for all I know.

Is it a perverted broccoli or a cauliflower mutant? An alien from an outer field? Whatever it is, it has become a resident in our kitchen and it makes for a stunning roast on vegan night which seems to be most nights around here of late. The thing looks so vibrant, so alive, one could almost feel the guilt of the reluctant meat-eater when faced with butchering it. All cauliflower is butchered the same way prior to roasting: You peel away the excessive leaves, lay it on its top and quickly cut out its rectal core or whatever it’s called on the bottom — its stub?

Removal of rectal core
Removal of rectal core from a white cauliflower

 

You thank it for giving up its life.

Back in the day cauliflower came in any color you liked as long as it was white. We ate it often and always the same way, in a cheese sauce. My mother called it cauliflower cheese. It was really a Mornay sauce, topped with bread crumbs and baked and finished under the broiler to a golden bubbly like an Ogdens’ Nut Gone Flake .

It’s come a long way from its cheesy gooey past having morphed, kind of like Denver into a cosmopolitan—but vegetal metropolis. Now it comes in a bunch of diverse colors. Along with the common white, we see it in purple, yellow and orange.

roasted purple cauliflower
A roasted purple cauliflower with ginger slurry  and vegetables

 

Then there’s the king of weird: Romanesco, also known as, Roman cauliflower, or Romanesco broccoli, it’s originally from Italy, it’s totally nuts — I love it.

Romanesco. The King of weird
Romanesco. The King of weird

 

It’s unbelievably simple to roast a cauliflower: douse it with good olive oil and rub sea salt all over, maybe layer a few sliced potatoes and onions underneath like this white one here.

P1080498

Put it in the oven at 350˚, basting every 1/2 hour, for 2 hours or more depending on its size.

 

21st century schizoid veg
21st century schizoid veg

 

Or you can dress it up a little more. For the Romanescos pictured above — and I used 2, as it was a dinner formulated for romance—I used my trusty Moroccan tagine. I dressed them in olive oil, sea salt, toasted and ground cumin seeds and  an ample amount of Aleppo pepper. I had some cooked chick peas in the fridge, so in they went. I added some baby potatoes, carrots, onions and trumpet mushrooms. Then I made a simple sauce of coconut milk and Thai green curry paste. (You can buy the curry paste ready-made to save time) Just heat in a pan and mix it up.

Simmering green curry paste and coconut milk
Simmering green curry paste and coconut milk

 

Pour the lot over the Romanesco and vegetables. It’s a tagine right? That means you cover it with the lid, which creates the steamy, sultry interior, and after an hour I deluded it for another hour

Tagine with vegetables embedded inside
Tagine with vegetables embedded inside

 

to get a nice crispy finish on the knobby peaks. Don’t forget to baste it once you take the lid off. For a final booster I chopped and added a few leaflets of kale and let them steam under the lid a minute while waiting for my wife to join me at the table.

Not bad, eh?

[wd_contact_form id=”3″]

 

Sweet and Sour German Red Cabbage

“Rotkohl”

 

P1090093

When I was a kid, for three or four summers in a row, my parents took us on holiday for the month of August to a giant old country house outside of Cobh, in County Cork. It belonged to a friend of my father’s. The ground floor was a giant stone slab polished with age. There was no bedding, kitchen equipment or electricity provided. Still for my parents, it was a free holiday away from the bustle of Dublin and for us kids it was like heaven beside a stony shore.

The amount of stuff we took— it was like getting ready for a siege — the roof-rack piled high with roped down blankets, sheets and pillows; the car stuffed to the gills with jams and jellies, butter and cheese, pots and pans, candles, cutlery, sardines and lots of cabbage.

P1080543

For we were off for a month and the old house had little to offer in the way of kitchen equipment except for a propane stove, a sink with cold running water and a white enamel table which looked like it was salvaged from an army hospital.

And we were a mere throwing distance from the sea; a beautifully protected cove perfect for kids wanting to hone their stone skipping and periwinkle gathering skills. The month passed and it felt like a week.

Most afternoons I veered towards the kitchen where my mother was busy with supper. It was a plain whitewashed affair with the table stationed up against the wall. The light was provided by the window, which was adequate in August as it’s still light in Ireland at 9pm. She of course did all the cooking. I helped with peeling potatoes, always potatoes, but I also learned how to prepare her red cabbage, German style.

P1090089

Before I was born, you see, my parents lived in Glasgow for a while after the war, and their little flat had a shared kitchen. It was shared with Herr and Frau Kulak, a German couple. What they were doing in Scotland I’ve no idea — I seem to remember he might have been an engineer — but anyway, on a Skype call to my dad I asked if he remembered her.
“I’ll never forget her,” he said. “She was a cross between a demon and a dynamo. She scoured the kitchen every day until it glistened and shined, and she insisted your mother did the same. And she insisted your mother learn how to make her red cabbage of which she was very proud.
And so it happened that I learned from Frau Kulak through the medium of my mother how to prepare German red cabbage. I think I was 13. It think it was 1966. I think she called it, Rotkohl.

Frau Kulak and my mother used grated apple, some kind of vinegar and brown sugar. I like dried cranberries, apple cider vinegar and maple syrup. By all means, try it with grated apple, or use currants, raisins or dried cherries. Red wine vinegar works well instead of apple cider. You can add a few cloves or coriander seeds instead of juniper berries. Some folks add a sprinkle of flour; I don’t think it’s necessary.

P1080889

It’s a simple dish, but, it can take a little time depending on how you cut the cabbage and of course, it needs to cook a while. A lot of recipes call for two hours, but I like the fresh flavor and brightness that one hour yields. Experiment. Go easy on the sweet and the sour. Too much of either and you will not succeed. Add these in small amounts and please, taste as you go.

Olive, coconut oil, butter or bacon fat.
1 medium onion finely diced
A medium red cabbage quartered, cored, and sliced or minced either by hand or shredded in a food processor.
A scant handful of dried Cranberries.
A decent splash of apple cider vinegar.
A smaller splash of maple syrup.
1/4-1/2 cup of water.
5 or 6 juniper berries.
Salt and black pepper to taste.

Cover the bottom of a heavy skillet with fat.
Add the onion and sauté gently without browning until soft.

P1080886
Add the cabbage and everything else.

P1080903

Cover with tight-fitting lid and cook at a low simmer for an hour or more. Check along the way and add water if necessary. It should be moist, a little bit crunchy and a little bit soft and it should glisten and shine like Frau Kulak’s floor.

Throw on a couple of Brats if you like.

Red Cabbage (Rotkohl) with Brats and Potatoes
Red Cabbage (Rotkohl) with Brats and Potatoes.

[wd_contact_form id=”3″]

Spring dandelion greens with mint pesto and tinned anchovies.

Spring dandelion greens with mint pesto and tinned anchovies

 

P1090173

From the array of challenges facing the Denver culinarian, top of the list surely is the availability of fresh food. I have long ago, for example, stopped buying seafood labeled as fresh from my local Whole Foods or any other supermarket. You should see the pale, pallid crap they market here as salmon.

I make an exception, however, come July and August, when the price for fresh wild Alaska salmon drops to an affordable $20 a pound.

Alaska airlines operate a daily bee line from Anchorage to Denver, and I have a man, Bruce, who has a shop, Seafood Landing, in the old Scottish Highlands neighborhood. He flies it in direct every Tuesday. But that’s as I say, only in August.

P1090168

Meanwhile, I am happy when the need for seafood arrives, to settle on the many options for tinned fish, especially if it’s packed in olive oil, my favorites being the mighty Portuguese mackerel, Ortiz’s fat sardines packed in glass jars, smoked wild herring from Bar Harbor, Maine, and lest we forget, the petite yet meaty, too often unsung beauties of the sea — anchovies snuggled in their tins with olive oil slime.

Assorted seafood conserves
Assorted seafood conserves

 

In Denver in April, 95% of the vegetable and fruit offerings at our local market, which has the decidedly unappetizing name of The Vitamin Cottage, come from thousands of miles and almost as many countries away. I have kept chard from my garden, for the purpose of experimentation, for 10 days in the fridge, and it looks about the same as what you get in the grocery store — still edible, it looks OK, but it’s not exactly fresh. I know what I’m saying because I used to work in the wholesale produce business. Think about it: After being plucked from the field and washed and cooled — let’s just say organic lacinato kale — it may lie over night in a field cooler awaiting truck’s arrival to bring it down to LA, where it may just as well sit for 2 days before enduring the 20 hour desert crossing and scaling of the rocky mountains, before arriving truck-lagged to a Denver warehouse where it could be delayed another 2 days, and possibly yet another in the store’s walk-in, before ending up in the produce case forlorn but fluffed and dying to be misted. So, really how fresh can that be?

So what’s to eat that’s super fresh and not truck-lagged in Denver in April that’ll make you think you’re eating like any every day, overtly tattooed San Francisco culinary hipster? Sure there’s asparagus, but it’s not from here, not yet anyway, it’s from Mexico and it usually looks a little dried up; the asparagus in my garden is peaking a mere 3 inches out of the ground just about now. The first things to emerge that look anything like spring around here are mint and dandelion.

P1090161 P1090152

Both are considered to be weeds by an alarming number of eaters, but both are delicious.

To make a mint pesto, just pick, wash and crush a couple of handfuls of mint leaves with a few cloves of garlic in a mortar or a food processor.

P1090162

smash it up real good.

P1090176

Add a handful of nuts. I used roasted peanuts because that’s what was in my fridge, but pine nuts, walnuts or pistachios work just fine.

P1090177

Smash some more—it feels good.

P1090179

 

Stream in a little olive oil and place it in that little container and clean up yer mess.

P1090183

Dandelion greens, as you know grow low to the ground, so make sure to triple wash them, especially if you are a dog owner,

 

P1090144

P1080120

like a cattle dog owner…

Toss with a little lime juice, some of the pesto and a little more olive oil.

P1090199

 

Pry open the anchovies or other tinned fish and place a few filets on the salad. Pour off the remaining liquid into the dog bowl—save it for later—  you can mix it with his kibble and a lightly scrambled egg for a nice meal. Take the salad and sit in a shaded area of your garden, if you are lucky enough to have one— eat and enjoy.[wd_contact_form id=”3″]