I’ve been wanting to write about puntarelle since I started this blog, and today is the day. This funny vegetable, which almost defies description and which I never saw in the United States, is the basis of one of my favorite spring side dishes. Puntarelle is the name given to these short stout sprouts of the asparagus chicory, also known as catalogna in some parts of Italy. They are a lively spring green in color, shaped somewhat like asparagus shoots (hence the name of the variety), and hollow on the inside up to the tips. Here and there darker leaves sprout randomly out of these tips like unkempt plumage.
The crisp and crunchy shoots have a slightly bitter flavor, and are said to stimulate digestion and to have a diuretic effect. I believe this. There is something pleasingly challenging about eating them in their unadorned state, and that being the case, they should be good for you. But the challenge—for me, at least—ceases to exist when they are prepared in the Roman fashion: tossed with olive oil, vinegar (some recipes call for white wine vinegar, but I use balsamic), finely chopped garlic, minutely diced anchovy (it’s worth it to get the best your money can buy), sea salt and freshly grated pepper.
Please note: I have been remiss in my preparation of this dish—I always am! Laziness and eagerness to eat the puntarelle inspire me to take one short-cut in particular in the preparation. I tend to chop them cross-wise as you see in the photo below. But the preferred method is to slice them lengthwise in a hearty julienne and to soak the resulting strips in iced water before dressing so that the bright green strips curl up and become, I presume, more delectably crunchy (if such a thing is possible). To see images of the plant in its uncut state and the shoots properly sliced and soaked, this is an excellent site.
As I said, I’ve never seen these in the U.S., but you might want to check with Local Harvest to see if there is, by chance, a grower near you. Chicory or no chicory, this is a wonderful organization that deserves support and encouragement.
[If you are an anchovy-garlic-olive oil kind of person, you might also enjoy: “Sicilian—or is that Milanese?—slaw“]