Sunday, March 3, 2013

Romanesco with Crispy Sunchokes and Cilantro Pesto: Joy outside the comfort zone

"Do you know what romanesco is?"

I look up from the menu I've been pretending to read for the past five minutes, and peer over at the pleasant-faced woman sitting to my right. Starved for interaction and proud that I actually know the answer, I practically shout my response over the din of other diners.

"It's kind of like a cross between broccoli and cauliflower," I say, unfolding the dish towel-style napkin neatly in my lap as she nods her head, considering.

"It's really good," I continue, not ready to abandon a potential conversation with a human - a far superior alternative to rereading the menu for the tenth time since my arrival.

I'm sitting at the bar at Josef Centeno's Bäco Mercat, stealing a moment in the midst of an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Downtown LA. I hadn't planned to bother with a formal lunch during my day reporting for jury duty at a nearby courthouse, yet somehow I'd ended up convincing myself that I was worth a $25 sit down meal rather than a tired sandwich from the cafeteria scarfed down before my palate could register its tiredness.

"I can eat a sandwich any day," I'd justified.

I take a sip of my water, surveying the scene around me - the two girls sharing the "el pesco" crispy shrimp bäco at the end of the bar, the older couple (tourists?) divvying up caramelized cauliflower and a double mushroom coca flatbread, the suits clinking glasses at the table in the corner. The room is alive with a distinct kind of energy, a certain foodie swagger.

"Have you been here before?" I ask the woman as though she's a dark-haired bachelor that I'm ready to attack, praying mantis-style, rather than a kindred spirit with a mutual craving for bäcos.

A praying mantis attack had been the original plan, of course. The whole point behind the exercise of solo bar dining at a restaurant that doesn't cater to the field-greens-with-dressing-on-the-side crowd. It was also my main incentive for reporting for jury duty in the first place. I could have easily postponed to a few months later at a time that wouldn't require me to frantically send work emails from my phone all morning.

But I didn't.

Because I was going to meet.... the one.

It all made sense in my head - a head that prefers to believe that everything happens for a reason. Clearly that was why I was assigned to report to Clara Shortridge Foltz courthouse at precisely 7:45 a.m. that day. Clearly that was why I was going to be sequestered in a room of strangers for nine hours.

One of those strangers was obviously going to be my future husband.


I'd purposely gotten up early to do my makeup and had spent way longer than usual to pick out my outfit - a sweater and skinny jeans with flats that said "put together" without looking like I'd, you know, purposely put it together.

When I'd arrived in the courthouse room where I'd be sitting for the remainder of the day, I'd selected a seat in an empty row, imagining that within five minutes Channing Tatum's doppelganger was going to be sitting down next to me. I had pulled out my paperback copy of Kitchen Confidential, knowing that he would have read it too, and we'd spend all day talking about tacos and Mozza and our favorite way to prepare kale from the farmers' market.

Instead, a large asthmatic woman winded from the walk down the hallway had plopped down on one side, and a girl who looked like she could be my doppelganger plopped down on the other. It had quickly become clear to me that the one was not in room 510.

Just as it's clear to me now that the one is not at the bar at Bäco Mercat.

Yet as I continue chatting with the friendly woman next to me who, as it turns out, is also reporting for jury duty, I no longer care. Nor do I care when I take that first blissful bite of my fava fritter bäco and realize that I could be eating a quinoa salad in front of my computer at the office right now.

Heading out into the sunshine to walk back to the courthouse after my leisurely lunch, it hits me that I'm secretly enjoying jury duty. Being Downtown. Reading a book for the first time since summer. Meeting people I never would have encountered in my normal existence in West Hollywood.

Finding joy outside my comfort zone.

And eating romanesco instead of cauliflower or broccoli.

Romanesco with Crispy Sunchokes and Cilantro Pesto
Serves 2-4

Notes; This recipe is a mash-up of different inspirations. The cauliflower with cilantro pesto at Josef Centeno's other restaurant, Bar Ama, a version of the dressing from Heidi Swanson's Yellow Split Peas, and a trip to Whole Foods that resulted in the purchase of romanesco and sunchokes before I even knew what I was to do with them. Somehow they all came together in this dish. It's a bit outside the comfort zone, but delightfully so - the crunch from the sunchoke chips, the crispy edges of the roasted romanesco ensconced with the vegetal bite of cilantro. Serve it in one of those quaint little bowls family-style that seem to only exist in restaurants, and enjoy it with the one or the ones you love.

1 head romanesco, cut into florets
3 sunchokes (approximately 1 lb), scrubbed well and sliced into thin pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
3 tablespoons pepitas, toasted
1 cup lightly packed cilantro leaves and stems, rinsed well
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1 clove garlic, peeled
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 small jalapeno pepper, seeded and devained
2 tablespoons water
Sea salt
1 green onion, sliced into thin pieces

Preheat oven to 400 degrees, and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Toss romanesco with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and a generous pinch of sea salt. Spread out on the baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir so all sides brown evenly. Push to one side of the baking sheet.

Toss the sunchokes with 1 tablespoon olive oil and another generous pinch of sea salt, and spread into an even layer on the other side of the baking sheet next to the romanesco. Roast together for another 20 minutes, stirring the sunchokes once midway through for even browning.

While vegetables are roasting, combine cilantro, 2 tablespoons pepitas, parmesan, garlic, lemon, jalapeno, water, and remaining tablespoon of olive oil. Using an immersion blender or blender, puree the ingredients until smooth.

Remove romanesco and sunchokes from the oven. Toss with cilantro pesto until evenly coated. Garnish with green onion and remaining tablespoon of toasted pepitas.


aleah said...

I too have eaten solo at the bar of Baco Mercat while in LA for a couple weeks for work, though to be fair I did know the bartender so I didn't end up defining any menu items for my neighbors... I can relate to the feeling of enjoying something outside of your comfort zone - I was dreading the time spent away from home, but at the end of it I realised it had been kind of fun.
Also, I think Romanesco is pretty but I've never bought it because I had no idea what to do with it - thanks!

Jessica said...

ahh, this looks delicious! love.
( the alcove )