Puntarella Chicory Arrives!

Chicory is an herbaceous wild biennial or perennial found all over the Mediterranean. The leaves of chicory have a basal rosette of runcinate leaves, that is, with lobes are deeply incised and recurved at the tip. The heads are large with loose, dark green leaves that taste bitter. The flowering stalk emerges out of this rosette up to a height of three feet or more in some cases. The flowers are blue and, rarely, pink or white.

Chicory’s center of origin is the Mediterranean. There are many varieties of chicories—Belgian endive, Barbe di Capuchin, Pan di zucchero, bianca di Milano, and dolce bianca are all known as sugarloaf chicories (zuccherina). The catalogna or puntarella variety of chicory looks like gigantic dandelion plants. There are many others. Italians appear to be the true connoisseurs of chicory.

One of the most common, and overlooked, side dishes in Roman cooking is puntarelle a kind of chicory grown in the Roman countryside that is seasoned with olive oil and anchovies or with a light sauce of egg yolks, olive oil, lemon, and salt. It also finds its way into pasta dishes such a bucatini con i puntarella. This famous Roman dish called puntarelle in salsa d’alici or puntarella alla romana, should not be missed when in Rome. Puntarelle is the Roman name for cicoria di orto or catalogna, which mean respectively, garden chicory and Catalonia chicory. It is a kind of chicory that looks like it’s all stem, and in fact looks remarkably like bucatini pasta once cooked. It is not as bitter as the leafier chicory available in most supermarkets.

A wonderful restaurant to have it, if it’s in season, is at Perilli on the via Marmorata in Testaccio. This restaurant is famous for Roman fare, which is typically heavy on the offal. It would be difficult to make this dish in an American kitchen as it is a cultivar that one would have to grow oneself. However I was motivated to write this post because I found for the first time puntarella sold at the Santa Monica Farmers Market in California. Should you grow your own from seed, pick a pound of Catalonia chicory and remove the outer leaves and slice the remaining leaves and their stems in thin stripes and put them in ice water for one hour to curl along with the central bulb, sliced very thinly. Pound four salted anchovy fillets with one clove garlic and two tablespoons white wine vinegar and mash until a paste. Dilute this mixture with olive oil and dress the drained chicory leaves with it and some salt.

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