Fractals [geometric shapes exhibiting self-similarity] are all around us in nature it seems, from the shapes of galaxies and clouds to snowflakes and ferns. But surely the most visually astounding example of complex mathematics in vegetable form is the Romanesco cauliflower [if indeed it is a cauliflower, see http://www.fourmilab.ch/images/Romanesco/].
The term ‘fractal’ was coined by Benoît Mandelbrot in 1975, although the thinking behind them had been developing for several hundred years by this point, but for many of my generation they’re inextricably linked to the ‘magic eye’ images of the late 1980s and early 90s where they concealed patterns which when viewed with eyes crossed to focus somewhere behind the plane of the page revealed 3D images of dinosaurs and skyscrapers. Hours of fun, nausea and headaches, normally to be found on posters sold in the sort of shops where you could also find tie-dyed scarves, soapstone trinket boxes and jossticks.
It was some time after all this that I met my first Romanesco and so, despite the obvious evolutionary timeline, it appeared to me have been ‘invented’ sometime in the late 20th century, and yet still it managed to look like a visitor from the future. Or perhaps the wild imaginings of a Martian audience on hearing one of their explorers freshly returned from a visit to Earth, minus his camera, and trying to describe a cauliflower.
The striking appearance of the Romanesco has even landed it a starring role in the sort of debates which concern themselves with whether such naturally occurring complexity provides definitive proof for or against the existence of a creator god – a quick trawl of the internet will turn up numerous arguments on both sides. Quite the perfect side dish then if you happen to be entertaining Pope Benedict and Stephen Hawking at the same table this weekend. If you are, and you have a spare place, do give me a call because a] I love Romanesco and b] I wouldn’t mind a ringside seat for the debate, though I should tell you now that my money’s on Stephen to win.
As a side dish for two:
- 1 small to medium Romanesco
- 3 to 4 tbsps rapeseed oil*
- Dried chilli flakes or chilli powder to taste
- A pinch of ground coriander seeds
- A squeeze of lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
Heat your oven to 190˚C, and divide your Romanesco into roughly equally sized florets, trying not to fall into an ever decreasing spiral of infinitely smaller measurements [an ever-present danger with fractals!] as you do so. Toss well with the oil – the surface area of fractal vegetables can tend worryingly towards the infinite, but thankfully the coverage will eventually be limited by the size of the molecules of both oil and vegetable – the spices and seasoning, and squeeze over the lemon juice. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes until there are crunchy brown tinges to many of the green corners. And that’s’ it, a surprisingly simple recipe for such a multifaceted vegetable.
* I cooked my Martian mathematical marvel in rapeseed oil as they both have a certain nuttiness which is mutually complimentary, but olive oil will do just as well.