A bitter Italian winter leaf with a tender heart
“Puntarelle has quite a following on the stall. Especially with some of the Italian customers,” says Gary from Elsey and Bent, pointing to a small stack of vegetable boxes on an unusually sunny and warm November day. “It is actually a winter leaf,” he says glancing up at the sun with a wry grin. “It’s a member of the chicory family, so it has a similar character in terms of taste.”
While it can vary, this vegetable normally begins to arrive at the stall in October and the season can go through to as late as April. It caught the attention of Borough Market demonstration chef Celia Brooks on one of her tours around the Market.
“I only really discovered it last year,” she explains. “I used to see it popping up around this time of year and became curious. It turns out that puntarelle is one of a whole family of bitter leaf plants like chicory and radicchio, which I know very well, so I happily incorporated it into my cooking.”
A wild bushy mass
Now when Celia sees puntarelle on a tour—usually at Elsey and Bent—she stops and asks if anyone knows what it is and what to do with it. The answer is usually a resounding no. “It looks like a wild bushy mass of green, but open it up and puntarelle reveals a tender secret at its heart,” she continues.
“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.”
Cut them open and cespo are hollow, with a nice crunchy texture. While they still have a slight bitter flavour, there’s a hint of sweetness that’s not present in the leaves. “You can use them raw. In Rome you’ll find cespo in salads all over the city with a traditional dressing: a mixture of chopped anchovies, white wine vinegar and olive oil, which makes up an intense vinaigrette.”
You can also cook them by cutting them into chunks and sautéing with garlic and chilli. Alternatively, can add the slices to a cheese sauce while it is cooking. “It absorbs some of the sauce but still retains a nice crunch,” says Celia.
Try using blue cheese and mixing it with pasta and some sweet caramelised onions. “The creaminess and umami from the cheese works beautifully with the crunch and slight bitter edge of the puntarelle heart.”
While those long leaves on the outside can be very strong and bitter, they should not be wasted, Celia implores. “One thing that many Italian cooks do is soak the puntarelle leaves for a few hours in water before cooking, which make them more juicy and a bit less tart,” she advises. “They can be used in salads, but make sure you do this judiciously.”
A squeeze of lemon
They also work really well cooked, used as you would spinach. “In a restaurant in Italy a while ago I had cooked puntarelle leaves with a broad bean puree—that was a very nice combination. At home I like having them with garlic and chilli, then adding a squeeze of lemon at the end,” says Celia. “Cooking it that way lessens the bitterness, and brings out some of the other flavours.”
Like all cookery, it is a question of balance. “Bitterness is one of the five flavours and when bitter ingredients like puntarelle are combined well with other ingredients they can really enhance the final dish.”