13 November 2015

Growing puntarelle in the UK

I first came across puntarelle on a winter holiday to Rome a few years back. Puntarelle is a variety of chicory, with distinctive pointy leaves. It's very popular around Rome, where it is in season in late autumn and winter. The best bit is the heart, which can be used to make a refreshing, slightly bitter salad. The outer leaves can be a bit tough, and are best braised. Puntarelle is very hard to buy in the UK. I thought I'd have a go at growing some this year, and found it grew very well.


Growing puntarelle

Like most chicories, puntarelle is harvested in autumn and early winter. The seeds should be sown in shallow rows in late spring. The best seed suppliers in the UK for puntarelle seeds (and other Italian varieties) is Franchi Seeds. Thin out the seedlings in summer to about 8 to 10 inches apart.

Puntarelle can be harvested from about October. Ideally by then, you will find a bulbous heart at the centre of the plant, but if not, the tender inner leaves are delicious on their own.

Preparing puntarelle

Remove the course outer leaves from the puntarelle. These can be discarded or cooked. The hearts and finer inner leaves should be washed thoroughly. Puntarelle is quite bitter, and some of the bitterness needs to be taken out by steeping it in ice-cold water for at least 30 minutes.

Puntarelle can be added to salads as you would other types of chicory. In Rome it is traditionally eaten with an anchovy dressing.

For a refeshing salad, that is delicious following an autumnal stew, chop the core of a puntarelle on an angle and steep in ice cold water as described above. To make the dressing, pound a couple of anchovies into a paste with a food processor or pestle and mortar. Add a little red wine vinegar, a small amount of smooth dijon mustard and about 4-5 times as much extra virgin olive oil as you did vinegar. Add the ingredients to a small jam jar and shake to emulsify. Take about 10 pitted green olives, and slice into 3 or 4 rounds. Cut a largish tomato into thin slices. Drain and dry the puntarelle. Add the puntarelle to a bowl, along with the olives, tomato slices and a generous teaspoonful of capers. Add the anchovy dressing, and toss well until all the ingredients are coated.

Puntarelle salad

The outer leaves can be cooked. They too are quite bitter, and also require soaking in ice cold water to remove some of the bitterness, which isn't removed by cooking alone. To cook, blanch the leaves for a few minutes in boiling salted water, drain, and then braise in a little olive oil in a frying pan. Giorgio Locatelli's wonderful book 'Made in Italy' suggests adding a few pine nuts and raisins when braising the puntarelle. I've also eaten them in Rome gratined with anchovies.

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