Meet the weirdly wonderful Romanesco cauliflower

It is elusive, to be sure. It is also chartreuse and spiky, with each spiraling cone a naturally occurring fractal—meaning its shape is formed by smaller shapes that repeat its geometric pattern. Oh, heck, you just have to see it to believe it … so look to the right.

It is commonly called a Romanesco cauliflower, or just Romanesco, or Romanesca. But it is also (incorrectly) referred to as Romanesco broccoli and, occasionally, Romanesco cabbage.

By any name, it is as delicious as it is oddly beautiful. Reminiscent of a sweet cauliflower or very mild broccoli, Romanesco can be used in recipes that call for either. But you’ll want to choose the simplest preparations in order to highlight the vegetable’s unusual appearance and distinct, delicate flavor.

Try it served raw in little pine-tree-shaped florets, steamed and tossed with pasta, or roasted with lemon and garlic. “It’s fun, and it’s like a science project in itself,” says Stephanie Turner, seed product manager at Park Seed Co. based in Greenwood, S.C. “Those little florets are a perfect illustration of the fractal formation. And whenever you put a vegetable on the plate that’s a little bit different, it does seem to make your meal a little more elegant.”

Romanesco’s sweetness comes from the added chlorophyll in the flower head, which also gives the vegetable its bright green color.

As the name suggests, Romanesco is native to Italy, where it has been cultivated for hundreds of years. The confusion in its classification is due to the close relationship between broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage, explains William Terry Kelley, a former UGA extension vegetable horticulturalist. When people talk about other vegetables that are related, such as tomatoes and peppers, they’re talking about the same family within the scientific classification system, he says. But with broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, and collards, the relationship is much closer. “Not only are they all the same family, but they’re also all the same genus, and they’re all the same species. You go to subspecies before you can break them down,” Kelley says. “If peppers and tomatoes are fifth cousins, these are first cousins.”

Like those other Brassica oleracea cousins, Romanesco is a cool-season crop. So now is the time to start looking for it in farmers markets. (It makes occasional appearances at Whole Foods, too.) You might have to hunt for it, though; not too many farmers grow Romanesco, and when they do, they tend to sell out quickly.

Bobby Britt of Besmaid Garden Essentials in DeKalb County says he’s planted about 700 cauliflower plants, including white, orange and Romanesco varieties. The plants are thriving, and he expects them to form heads in the next few weeks. He’s already bringing loads of broccoli to the Wednesday Decatur and Saturday Marietta farmers markets.

Britt advises shoppers in search of Romanesco to get to the markets early. The unusual vegetable has a following, especially among chefs, he says: “Kevin Gillespie definitely wants those.”