I’m no chump when it comes to chicory. I’ve heard of puntarelle before today. I’ve even eaten puntarelle before today. But (before today) I’d never seen it outside a restaurant and I’ve certainly never been able to buy it.
I’m pleased to say that has now changed. The Hollywood Farmers Market had puntarelle on the aisle and I snatched up a bunch of it. I’m glad I did too. It was in limited supply and going fast. By the time I arrived about 9 am, the farmer who had it for sale was down to his last 2 heads. So I grabbed what I could without really having any idea what I was going to do with it, but at $3 each how could I go wrong?
I immediately went home and opened up Domenica Marchetti’s book The Glorious Vegetables of Italy. I may not know much about puntarelle, but I know it’s an Italian vegetable and I know it’s glorious. I also know, if anyone could help me with this bitter green it was Domenica Marchetti.
Sure enough, right there on page 26 the book introduces its readers to puntarelle in a section outlining the chicory family (a group of Italian greens featuring endive, escarole, radicchio, etc).
According to The Glorious Vegetables of Italy, puntarelle is typical of the region around Rome and is commonly used in a bold, anchovy-dressed Puntarelle alla Romana salad. I was intrigued by this unusual vegetable and did further research on Domenica’s website (Domenica Cooks) where I learned how to prep this bitter Italian vegetable. It’s fortunate I found this information too because I never would have guessed that I needed to tame this wild green by curling it. Which fortunately isn’t as hard as it sounds.
When you purchase puntarelle it will look a bit like some of the other chicories you may have worked with before. However, if you pull back the spiky leaves you’ll see that they encase some other-worldly green and white stalks. My first thought was that this vegetable was a cross between asparagus spears and Seymour (the man-eating plant from Little Shop of Horrors). Yikes!
Don’t be horrified. Instead get to work prepping the vegetable for the Puntarelle alla Romana recipe I adapted from Domenica Marchetti. It takes some time to do properly and it’s a task quite different than any other kitchen chore you may have engaged in before. That’s what makes this recipe so fun.
How to Prep Puntarelle
Begin by pulling off all the spiky green leaves surrounding each stalk (even the little tiny leaves). You can save them for the soup pot or you can toss them into hot pasta. Raw puntarelle leaves will brighten a mixed green salad too.
Once you’ve shucked it clean, take a look at the little monster that’s left in front of you. He’s a lot less scary without his jagged, leafy cloak. Use a paring knife to cut each stalk away from the base of the plant. The larger outer stalks will be easy to identify and remove independently. Some of the interior, smaller stalks will be more fused together– a lot like cauliflower. Just decide where to separate them lengthwise and go for it. You can’t mess this up.
The individual stalks you create should be mostly hollow, like mature fennel fronds. If they aren’t trim away a bit more of their tough white bases. Halve all the stalks lengthwise, and then cut each half lengthwise, again and again, into very thin strips following the fibers as a guide. You’ll be left with a big pile of green ribbons of varying lengths.
Next, prepare an ice bath in a large bowl and submerge the sliced puntarelle ribbons. Let them soak at least 30 minutes, they will curl up in the most delightful way.
When you’re ready to eat, drain and dry the puntarelle well. Then toss the curls with anchovy vinaigrette and serve the salad with homemade croutons or good crusty bread. GREG
Whole, raw puntarelle photo courtesy of Shutterstock.