The World’s Best Salad Vegetable: Puntarelle

Kristen Frederickson

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Puntarelle can be fussy to prepare, but the delicious taste is worth it.
 

I know that in this day of trying to cut down on the air-miles of our food, trying to eat locally, it is really not the done thing to encourage us to eat vegetables that must be imported, but then every once in awhile one must make an exception. For me, that vegetable is puntarelle.

I was first served this vegetable at the incomparable restaurant Riva, just up the road in the leafy London neighborhood of Barnes, specializing in Northern Italian delicacies like roast suckling pig, truffle risotto, and as it turns out, puntarelle alla romana. Floating in a sea of the most heavenly dressing–mint, garlic and anchovy, if you can imagine–the crunchy, glossy mouthfuls were a revelation.

First mentioned in Roman literature around 1550, and an originally wild member of the chicory family and one of the most celebrated vegetables of the Roman growing season, puntarelle may be ordered from Natoora here in the UK, either online or at one of two shopfronts. In the US, puntarelle may be found at Produce Express and at many farmer’s markets if you’re lucky enough to live in California.

Alternatively, if you are a gardener and can think a whole growing season in advance of wanting to eat your puntarelle, you can order seeds and start digging.

With a very short season of January and February, puntarelle appear just at that time of year when life seems at its most dreary. Vegetables are of the roasted variety, warm and comforting to be sure, but not exciting. That’s where the fun of puntarelle will save your winter.

And they are good for you! Puntarelle contain copious amounts of beta-carotene and iron, vitamin C, vitamin A, fiber, potassium, phosphorus and calcium.

Puntarelle appear in Italian cookbooks wherever you might expect to see chicory, arugula or endive.

Admittedly, they are fussy to prepare. They come in a very large bulb, sprouting outer leaves that look a bit like rocket/arugula and are extremely bitter. Begin by cutting the bottom off the plant (a bit like celery bottoms) and peeling away the ragged or dirty outer leaves. When you reach the nice fresh leaves inside, give one a bit of a chew to see how bitter they are, and if still too bitter for your taste, keep going until you get to the very center of the plant.

Here you will find funny stalks with feather tops, a bit like a cross between celery and pale asparagus. These are the Holy Grail. Cut them away from the hard base with a little paring knife, and then, with a bowl of cold water at the ready, begin slicing the little stalks lengthwise into slivers, and drop them in the water. Each head of puntarelle will yield enough for a side salad for four. Add as many clean outer leaves as your bitter tolerance allows, and leave in the cold water for at least an hour.

Meanwhile, concoct the most delicious dressing on the face of the earth.

The puntarelle will curl up delightfully. Put them through your salad spinner and spoon on that heavenly dressing. The spears will then go though an evolution from super-crunchy to soft as they soak up the dressing, and they are delightfully delicious at every state. If there is any leftover dressing when you’ve finished your salad, save it in a jar for next time on any salad, as it will have taken on a slight and lovely bitter taste.

Puntarelle appear in Italian cookbooks wherever you might expect to see chicory, arugula or endive. The leaves are lovely sautéed with sausage and orecchiette, and in steaming winter soups full of beans and garlic. But I like them best just on their own, with their bitterness and their crunch, the perfect foil to a grey January day.

What vegetable gets you through the mid-winter doldrums?

Photo credit: Kristen Frederickson