“Perhaps the most sophisticated of all salad greens. At first glance it suggests the dandelion green, but its flavour is more upper-crust”
-Mimi Sheraton, A 1000 foods To Eat Before You Die
Sheraton goes on to say that spiky, bittersweet puntarelle, beloved of Romans, tastes like a mix of dandelion, rocket, and liquorice-scented fennel. Older leaves are particularly bitter but they can be brought to mellowness by simply washing, or by blanching.
The dark green, lacy, serrated leaves contrast with the snowy white stems, not just in terms of looks, but in terms of texture as well. The heart, with its crisp texture and sweeter flavour is the most prized part, contrasting delightfully with the soft frayed bitter leaves.
“When you pull apart that jungle of greenery you find these fat tendrils, which kind of look like asparagus from Mars—rather strange-looking pale heads that sit in a bundle right at the core. In Italy, these are known as cespo. They’re the tastiest, best part of the vegetable.”
-Celia Brooks, on the Borough Market blog
What’s in a name
Puntarelle is sometimes known as catalogna di Galatina, cicoria di catalogna, cicoria asparago, and more obviously Italian dandelion. It’s part of the Cichorium intybus genus, of the Asteraceae botanical family – that’s the dandelion family to you and me. It gets the name catalogna di Galatina, from Galatina, the town in Puglia where it is said it was first grown, at least in Italy (‘catalogna’ means ‘from Catalonia’ – in Spain.
Puntarelle means ‘little points’ – referring to the hollow white shoots hidden under the toothy, ragged leaves.
When is it in season?
Late autumn until February – sometimes even until April
How to prepare it
Preparing it is a bit of a business to be honest. You need to trim off the leaves and slice the remaining tender part (cut off the tough bottom) of the white stems into thin strips lengthwise. If you are lucky you will find them in the shop, or on the stall, already prepared.
After you have trimmed and cut, soak in iced water and they will curl up delightfully and become crisp. The iced water relaxes the leaves enabling them to soak up any dressing.
How to use it
You can do all kinds of things with it:
- Substitute for frisée in a fabulous, fantastical frisée salad
- Serve it, as the Romans do (punterelle alla Romana), with an oil and red wine vinegar dressing in which you have added a mean teaspoon of mashed anchovy (or a little Patum Peperium), and which you have stirred with a fork sticking into a garlic clove. Maybe sprinkle over some capers. Some add chilli.
- Or fry gently with garlic and olive oil
- Make a salad with mushrooms and gorgonzola
- Or in pasta with gorgonzola and caramelised onions
- In a buttermilk dressing
- As a bed for fried duck eggs and boiled potatoes
- With artichoke and bottarga – in a pasta!
- Steam it and serve with broad beans
- Braise in olive oil and butter with pancetta (fry this first), garlic, and chopped sage, marjoram and parsley (catalogna brasata)
- dress with a lemon vinaigrette laced with garlic, and then grate over some Parmesan or Grana Padano (catalogna al grana)
How to store it
It will keep in the fridge, wrapped in plastic, for a couple of weeks.
Where can you get it in the UK?