Vegetable Spotlight: Puntarelle

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Puntarelle from plant to plate

Puntarelle – Chicory elevated

If you’ve ever spent time walking the markets of Rome chances are you’ve seen thin curled slices of a celadon to white hued vegetable piled high or floating in a bowl of water.  Hopefully you had a salad of the puntarelle, a labor-intensive gift of fresh crunch with a hint of bitterness, often napped with a powerful anchovy garlic dressing. It’s easy to develop an addiction to puntarelle but hard to feed the jones once you return home to the States. The plant rarely turns up at farmers markets because farmers are reluctant to raise a plant that has so few chefs or home cooks that know what to do with it. You have to be willing to devote the hours necessary to climb the learning curve of shaving the strange asparagus looking centers of the large chicory (dandelion). Puntarelle or cicoria di catalogna or cicoria asparago is the poster child for the idea of a “vegetable butcher” at the market. You literally need nearly a case of the huge plants to produce a few bowls of the finished salad green.

Here’s a video from from my pal Elizabeth Minchilli taken in Campo dei Fiori in Rome of a vendor prepping the puntarelle.  I have to get one of those TagliaPuntarelle!

I spent last Saturday cooking with friends down in Newport Coast and suggested we start our shopping at Chino Farms Vegetable Shop in Rancho Santa Fe. As always, the display of pristine produce was exhilarating. There are always little treats, either vegetables you’ve never seen before or varieties of the familiar that taste better than you’ve ever experienced. When I spied the big heads of dandelion greens and peeked inside to see the asparagus like shoots I knew we were in for a treat.

To use puntarelle you trim off the outside dandelion leaves reserving them for another use. At the center of the plant is a large fist sized bulb made up of hollow shoots that look like asparagus. Separate the shoots and cut them into very thin strips using a sharp paring knife. Drop the slivers as you cut them into a bowl of ice water. They will curl up and become beautifully crunchy. Before making the salad you need to drain the curly shoots and dry them well so that they can absorb the intense dressing of anchovy and garlic. There’s never enough.