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The Local Food Report
As we re-imagine our relationships to what we eat, Local Food Report creator Elspeth Hay takes us to the heart of the local food movement to talk with growers, harvesters, processors, cooks, policy makers and visionaries

Ordering Your Garden Seeds? This Year Try Puntarelle

Puntarelle is a staple green in Italy through the fall and winter, but not well known in the United States.

It’s seed ordering time again. While the cold blows in under the doors and through cracks in the windows, the catalogs pour in through the mail. And it’s time to start thinking about this year’s gardens. What are we going to plant? Well, together with his wife, Peter Staaterman runs Longnook Meadows Farm in Truro, and he has an idea.

“Puntarelle!” Staaterman said. “We’ve spent two winters in Italy, and this is a green which is very prominent there in the fall, through the winter, and into the spring. It’s kind of like their salad during that time of year. It’s got a thick stalk. I’m trying to figure out something to compare it to…”

It looks kind of like a cross between bok choy and celery—the plant has not just one stalk, but a big, dense mass of thick, pale green stems.

“And then the leaf comes up,” Staaterman continued. “And there’s not much leaf—it’s a long thin leaf. And the cooks aren’t interested in the leaf. What they want is the stalk, and the stalk all gathers together in a clump at base. So you have this clumpy thing, which is very fleshy. Sometimes they’ll grill it, or sauté it. I haven’t ever seen it raw. I’ve usually seen some sort of preparation done on it.”

The most famous way to eat puntarelle comes from Rome, where it’s prepared as Punatrelle in Salsa di Alici, or dressed with anchovies. Cooks strip the outer leaves from the puntarelle stalks, break the core into individual pieces, and cut each piece into small lengthwise strips. These strips are then plunged into an ice bath, which makes them curl up and get crunchy. After an hour or so, they’re drained and dressed with a salty mixture of anchovies, olive oil, and red wine vinegar. Staaterman said the resulting salad is pungent but delicious.

“Puntarelle is all about how you prep it and what you put on it for dressings,” he said. “There’s two kinds. There’s one kind seems to be blonde, and one seems to have red hair—dark, red stems. But let’s go look at a package… I’ll see if I can find it.”

Technically, puntarelle is not a chicory variety, but the Italian term for the inner stalks of a group of Catalonian chicories. Peter brought back Stretta and Italiko, but there’s also Brindisina, di Galatina, and Gigante di Chioggia, to name a few. Most are green, but the size of the stalks, how tightly they grow together, and how the leaves are shaped, range quite a bit. Staaterman said he originally brought the seeds back for a local Italian chef who wanted a taste of home, but the variety he got wasn’t quite the same as the one his friend remembered.

“It produced, and it was starting to get to the point of bolting, and I would bring samples to Michael. And he would say, ‘You know it’s really not quite right, not what I’m looking for.’ So Michael ended up not wanting it. But I found another chef who was willing to work with it. He took it, and I think he made a success out of it.”

The varieties Staaterman grew tasted better braised. But this year he says he might try a variety with thicker stalks for salads, and he’s also going to try planting the puntarelle earlier in the spring.

“I got it in the ground too late,” he said. “I think what it wants is cooler weather.”

The seed packet recommends planting puntarelle as soon as the soil can be worked in the spring, and for a winter crop again in late summer through the fall. It also notes that it may take some experimenting to find the exact right time for your region.

So this is a research project.

“I did the first half of the research,” Staaterman said. “You can do the second half. Here we go, throw a few seeds in there, that should keep you going for a while.”

It’s exciting, the prospect of a new garden green. It’s not time yet, but soon enough. Cold-loving greens like puntarelle can be planted as early as mid-Feburary in a hoop house, and I have my packet of Catalogna Puntarelle Stretta tucked away, ready for experimenting.

This week's episode is a rebroadcast. It originally aired in February, 2016.

Here are some tips for prepping puntarelle.

And here's that recipe for endive salad with puntarelle.