Cooking lessons from Rome
Several years ago, before a trip to Rome, I asked my friend Arthur Schwartz, a New York food writer who is well informed about the food of southern Italy, whom to talk to about Roman food. He quickly directed me to Iris Carulli, an American who now lives in Rome. Iris and I spent several hours together one morning visiting food markets and ended up eating lunch in a trattoria a few blocks from the Campo dei Fiori, one of Rome's most colorful outdoor markets. I ordered the rigatoni with cauliflower, a dish so common here, you might think it is too ordinary -- even boring. But it was memorable: The flavor of the cauliflower, infused with garlic and hot pepper, was barely sweet and cooked down to an almost creamy sauce. With thick tubes of pasta, the full plate was so appealing that I wanted to keep eating, even well after I was full.
In mid winter in Rome, cauliflower, usually called "broccoli," is in abundance, piled high in baskets at every stall in the markets. And there are many varieties. Our familiar white cauliflower is called broccoli bianco. Cauliflower romanesco is a variety that, like our white cauliflower, has a tightly compact head of florets attached by clusters of stalks. What distinguishes the romanesco heads are spiraling, pointy, pale green florets, and a subtle, almost sweet taste. It's probably more like the green cauliflower often available in Boston supermarkets and sometimes called "brocco-flower."
Cauliflower is such a staple of Roman cuisine that as far as I can tell, there isn't a menu in the city now that isn't serving it in some form: as a soup; a vegetable side dish, called contorni; or as a pasta sauce. It's a vegetable anyone spending time in Rome will get to know -- and appreciate the way the locals do.
When I serve cauliflower as a side dish, my favorite preparations are either to steam it whole and dress it with olive oil and salt, or to roast the florets with olive oil and salt until they turn light brown and slightly crisp.
But there's no question that my preference for the pale green buds is to serve them with a sauce of olive oil, garlic, and parsley over rigatoni, sprinkled with pecorino cheese, very much like the dish I ate in that trattoria years ago. An ordinary vegetable became something remarkable.