puntarelle

Hello I’m Andrea Castillo and this is Seasonal, a newsletter that connects you to the Bay Area food system, one fruit and vegetable at a time. Seasonal comes out twice per month, and each post highlights the most interesting aspects of one seasonal fruit or vegetable grown and harvested around the Bay Area. Find me on Instagram at @seasonalbayarea or e-mail me at seasonal@substack.com to share your feedback and suggestions, I’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to unsubscribe, click the gray unsubscribe link at the bottom of this post.

This week, we nerd out on puntarelle, a chicory that’s quite popular in Italian cuisine (available October-April).

falling in love with a weirdo

The farmer’s market can be an epicenter of discovery. A short stroll can feel like a tour through dozens of specialty farms where sights, smells, and signs lure you in. Even when your bags are full and you think you’re on your way out, you find yourself at another stop. The urge to stop and ask “what IS that?” is as good a reason for a detour as any. 

This is how my puntarelle discovery happened at the South Berkeley farmer’s market. A bunch of dainty yellower flowers piqued my interest and the Dirty Girl Produce staff member made a gracious offer to pluck one and taste it with me. Mustard greens flowers. They’re beautiful! Peppery! Bright! Delicate! I had to have them and was excited to go home and figure out how to cook with flowers that night.

But this story isn’t about discovering edible flowers. It’s about what happened next. It’s about getting caught off guard by the... thing? being? plant…? right in front of me at the check out counter. There were baskets full of what could be mistaken as an alien cross between asparagus and green shrimp encased in wild weeds. I. Had. Never. Seen. This. Before! I put my wallet away and the chat between the patient staff member and I went something like this:  

Me: What IS that?

Patient staff member: Puntarelle!

Me: What is THAT?

Patient staff member: It’s a type of chicory. 

Me: I’ve never seen that before!

Patient staff member: Pretty cool, huh? Some of our customers have been coming here and buying it to make cocktails with it. 

Me: What?! What else can you do with it?

Patient staff member: Oh it makes a great Roman salad, look it up it’s incredible. Take a picture of the sign if you want so you don’t forget what it is. 

Me: [quickly reads sign, which describes puntarelle as a “weirdo”]

Me: Sold. 

That’s the story of how puntarelle and I met, and it was love at first sight. Within four days, I had made the great Roman salad, purchased two more puntarelle bunches, and converted friends and family into fans of this unique little weirdo. 

The little weirdo from Mars turns out to be a chicory from Italy. These Dirty Girl Produce puntarelle had a lot of shoots to offer!

aw, shoot(s)!

Ok, so what *is* this crazy-looking plant? It’s the most non-chicory-looking chicory. Chicories are leafy vegetables that can be confused for lettuce or cabbage but are definitely not like lettuce or cabbage at all and are actually related to dandelions. Some better known types of chicory include radicchio, frisée, and Belgian endives, all of which are grown for their edible leaves. Puntarelle are a bit different: while some varieties are grown for their leaves, the more sought-after ones are grown for their hollow shoots. These asparagus + shrimp mutant shoots give puntarelle their unusual alien appearance and they’re the prized part of the plant that can be eaten raw, albeit with a bit of taming.

The pointy green shoots also give puntarelle its name: puntarelle translates to “little tips” in Italian. Puntarelle is shorthand for a number chicory varietals that optimize for a large number of shoots: cicoria asparago, cicoria di catalogna, or cicoria catalogna di galatina (cicoria is chicory in Italian). We owe Italians credit not just for the name, but also for the joy of puntarelle. Italy has been enjoying and taming puntarelle for centuries and until recently, it was almost impossible to find this type of chicory beyond Italian borders. Luckily for us, California’s friendly climate is similar to puntarelle’s homeland, and farms like Dirty Girl Produce in Santa Cruz make it possible for us to enjoy this locally grown Italian transplant. Enjoyment comes with a price, however. 

dilution is the solution

Taking a tiny bite of a puntarelle shoot will cause involuntary face contortions and immediately reveal the reason why: bitterness. A truckload of it. The bitter in puntarelle can overpower the other delightful celery, arugula, and key lime flavors in this chicory. So what’s the solution? Dilution!

Dilution is at the core of how Italians optimized the puntarelle eating experience. Italians, and Romans in particular, love their raw puntarelle. They count down the days to the start of puntarelle season in winter when they get to enjoy puntarelle salad alla romana: a one-ingredient salad (just raw, tamed puntarelle) with an olive oil, anchovy, garlic dressing. Sometimes they top it with fresh burrata because why not. Romans are so into puntarelle they even have a special tool called taglia puntarelle (puntarelle cutter) that’s designed to cut puntarelle shoots in thin strips, a key step in taming the bitterness in this chicory. 

To enjoy raw puntarelle, you should dilute the bitter compounds in the shoots. How? By soaking the thinly sliced shoots in ice cold water for about an hour. This ice bath curls and crisps the slices over time. It also encourages the bitter compounds in the puntarelle to slowly leach out, diminishing the quantity of bitter compounds left in the shoots. The more exposed surface area, the more the bitterness will reduce. This is why the shoots should be sliced: it just makes the dilution process more efficient. And efficiency—and profit—is apparently what Italians had in mind when they invented their taglia puntarelle: at Italian markets, pre-sliced puntarelle will fetch 10 times the non-prepped price. And it makes sense. Plucking off each individual shoot and then slicing each one by hand is a labor of love that takes patience and time. The results, of course, are completely worth it.

eat those leaves!

Hopefully your farmer or market did not discard the leaves prior to selling the puntarelle. If your puntarelle bunch comes with leaves, keep them! Puntarelle leaves make great side dishes, soups, and stews and should absolutely be eaten. They’re closest in flavor to bitter dandelion greens. Puntarelle leaves are quite bitter and a bit of heat over a longer period of time will help break down the bitter compounds in the leaves and help reduce the bitterness. To eat them raw, soak the leaves along with the shoots when prepping puntarelle and then slide them into a sandwich. After soaking you can also cook them down by blanching them for a hot minute if you want to serve them as a side dish with freshly pressed olive oil, a bit of salt, garlic and grated Parmesan. Or, skip the soak, chop them up, and stir fry them with other greens or add them to a legume soup or chickpea stew.

When it comes to using up the whole plant, I’ve been noticing how recipes call for discarding the tough bottom part of the leaves and stalks. I haven’t tried this yet but I am adding a little experiment to my cooking to do list: next time I get puntarelle, I will aim to discard as little of the white bok-choyesque stalks at the base of the puntarelle as possible, I’ll do a fine chop, and do a quick pickle. If it’s any good, I’ll report the good news and technique on instagram. And by the way, as the farmer’s market staff member was telling me, you can also try to make your own bitters with puntarelle.

Italy in our backyard

At the end of the day, it may seem like a lot of work just to make a salad or eat a strange-looking chicory. But remember that puntarelle has been tough to find outside of Italy. We are lucky to have the opportunity to even ponder how prepping puntarelle might be a lot of work. Some wish they had this problem, but they can’t even find the elusive chicory to start with. The puntarelle-obsessed online community laments how this one vegetable is what makes them miss Rome. And they can’t find it at home so they resort to buying seeds online or waiting for another trip to Italy to eat puntarelle to their heart’s content. 

In the meantime, California spoils us by making it possible to eat like the Romans do—without a plane ticket. I’m grateful to farmers around the Bay who took the initiative to grow puntarelle and bring this delicacy right to our backyard. So keep this in mind if you’re feeling a little intimidated by puntarelle. Go out and give it a shot. Enjoy the crunchy goodness that’s about to happen. Like many things in the kitchen that require patience and time, you can count on an excellent return on your investment. 

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Andrea Castillo is a food nerd who always wants to know the what’s, how’s, when’s, and why’s of the food she eats.