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Food Porn Friday: Eat your (nerdy) fruits and vegetables

 

Romanesco: Nerdiest vegetable ever?

Romanesco: Nerdiest vegetable ever?

Sometimes, when you're an eater with a broad and adventurous appetite, it seems like there's nothing new under the sun.  Ghost chili cotton candy?  Ramen tacos? A living terrarium of foie gras?  Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt and cut the sleeves off.  But, every now and again, if you're looking (and I'm always looking), you can truly be surprised by something completely novel, even if it might be old hat to some.  When this happens, it is a wonderful feeling.

One of my food discoveries in recent years was Romanesco.  Otherwise known as "Roman broccoli" or "broccoflower," its distinctive spiral flourettes, pale green color, crunchy texture, and mild, nutty flavor found their way onto a plate at Maurepas Foods when I dined there some time ago.  It was delightful: vegetal, but not overpoweringly so, tasting somewhere between a cauliflower and broccoli, hence the name.  But what I loved best were its crazy little conical spirals.  They looked like something Dr. Seuss might have come up with had God given him a whack at inventing vegetables.

I didn't realize just how weird, wonderful, and truly nerdy Romanesco was until I saw a whole head of one while shopping at the Crescent City Farmers Market.  Despite the vegetable's Italian origins, Timmy Perrilloux, of Perrilloux Farms, grows them in the wintertime just outside of New Orleans.  I was immediately struck by the outrageous shape of the thing, the dizzying, exotic form of the flourettes twisting into tight, spiky cones, like a vegetable from outer space.

As it turns out, Romanesco is also known as "fractal broccoli," because its shape approximates that of a natural fractal.  This is where things get really nerdy.  A fractal, if you don't remember from math class, is "a mathematical set that typically displays self-similar patterns," and that "includes the idea of a detailed pattern repeating itself."  And here we have Romanesco, a living, delicious representation of fractal geometry -- not to mention the Fibonacci series and the famed Golden Ratio -- grown on a South Louisiana farm, ready to be roasted with a little salt, pepper and olive oil.  Can food possibly get any nerdier than this?

Yes, it can.  Another of my recent discoveries in the realm of truly geeky ingredients, was the Kiwano melon.  I saw them sitting there at my local Rouses, a strange, spiky thing that looked like the offspring of an orange and a lemon that had armed itself to the teeth.  "What the hell is this all about?" I asked myself aloud, and knew immediately that I needed to investigate.

"If you can best my defenses, I'm pretty delicious."

"If you can best my defenses, I'm pretty delicious."

I purchased a pair of the melons, doing my best not to injure myself on those hard spiked on the bike ride home.  Kiwano, I imagine, probably ranks right behind durian on the list of flora one would choose to employ for defense in a combat-type situation.  Being smacked upside the head by one of these would hurt like hell, I bet.

There are some interesting facts about the Kiwano that I discovered in my initial research.  Like romanesco, it goes by a number of aliases:  horned melon, jelly melon, hedged gourd, African horned cucumber, melano, and -- my favorite -- "blowfish fruit," as it is apparently known in the southeastern United States.  Because, yeah, it looks just like a blowfish.  Apparently, while the Kiwano mostly originates from New Zealand (Middle Earth!  Hobbit country!), it's been appropriated by farmers in Mississippi, so close to our New Orleans home.  But that's just surface stuff.  Things become even more nerdy and fascinating when you cut the bizarre thing open, and you find out that the Kiwano looks like this on the inside:

"Um, excuse me...what?"

"Um, excuse me...what?"

What the...it's green and gelatinous and filled with seeds?  Who knew such things existed?  Then there's the flavor, once you get past those pesky seeds (or just decide to eat them -- they're neither good nor bad for you and have little taste).  It's somewhere between a cucumber and a sour banana, a combination for which I was unprepared.  It's not bad, though I found it hard to justify the price outside of the novelty factor.

But what truly makes this possibly the nerdiest fruit around is that, believe it or not, it appeared on an episode of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.  Yup: producers of the show found the Kiwano so crazy-looking, both inside and out, they chose it to represent an otherworldly "Golana Melon" in the episode "Time's Orphan."  Now that's what I call some serious geek cred.

So, the question of the day is: What's the nerdiest food you've had the pleasure of eating?


Native New Orleans food writer Scott Gold, author of The Shameless Carnivore, has written for Gourmet, The New Orleans Advocate, Gambit, ThrillistEdible Brooklyn, Tasting Table, The Faster Times, and other publications. His Food Porn Friday column for NolaVie offers a weekly mouth-watering photo essay designed to start culinary conversations in the Big Easy. Find him on Twitter @scottgold.