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Romanesco leaves are medium to large in size and are broad, flat, and oblong in shape. The dark green leaves are thick, fibrous, and stiff with a leathery texture. There is also a prominent central midrib with many small veins spreading throughout the leaf, and the midrib attaches to a dense, green, erect stem. Romanesco leaves are crisp and chewy with an earthy, nutty, and slightly bitter flavor that becomes sweetened when cooked. Romanesco plants are predominately known for their unusual shaped florets.
Romanesco leaves are available in the spring and fall.
Romanesco leaves, botanically classified as Brassica oleracea ‘Romanesco,’ grow on a cool weather plant that belongs to the Brassicaceae family along with mustard and cabbage. Also known as Romanesco broccoli and Romanesco cauliflower in the United States, Romanesco cabbage in Italy, and broccolo Romanesco in France, romanesco is a close cousin of broccoli and cauliflower and grows similarly with a central floret surrounded by broad leafy greens. The leaves are an underutilized culinary ingredient as they are usually trimmed away before packaging for the market.
Romanesco leaves are a good source of vitamins A, B and K, fiber, iron, manganese, carotene, zinc, and omega-3 fatty acids.
Romanesco leaves can be consumed in both raw or cooked applications such as steaming, braising, stewing, frying, sautéing, and roasting. The leaves are prepared like any other hearty greens such as kale, collards, or cabbage and can often be substituted in recipes as the leaves will not wilt once cooked. Romanesco leaves can be sautéed with garlic, sesame, soy sauce, and ginger for an easy side dish or simmered with other vegetables to make a vegetable broth. They can also be added to basil and olive oil to make pesto. Romanesco leaves pair well with bay leaves, oregano, thyme, red pepper flakes, nutmeg, shallots, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, cheddar cheese, roasted meats, chorizo sausage, pancetta, and chicken. They will keep up to a week when wrapped in a paper towel and stored in a plastic bag in the refrigerator.
Romanesco leaves are rarely used for culinary purposes in developed countries. Their commercial value is minimal and is often discarded to show off the beauty of the romanesco's fractal pattern. The leaves are most often consumed by home growers where they can harvest the leaves at different stages of the plant's life and maximize its usage. They may also be added to variations of the popular Italian dish called "in umido," which are vegetable greens braised in tomato sauce.
Romanesco is an Italian variety of broccoli native to Naples and Rome as early as the 16th century and then spread to the United States in the 20th century. Today Romanesco leaves can be found in home gardens and at farmers markets in Europe and the United States.