Catalogna/Puntarelle, Coste and Cime di RapaThere are far more greens here in the Italian winter market than I have experienced living in the states. I sometimes find, in the summer, myself longing for all the colorful and robust chicorys and dark leafy greens that the cool weather brings and make up our steady winter salads and greens, replacing the tender greens of summer. As winter is starting to give way to spring, we have seen the tale tale signs of strawberries from southern Spain as Italian ones are still a ways off from being ready. The market's new arrivals of spinach, dandelion greens and all sorts of mixed wild greens that I am not completely familiar with, although exciting I find that I still enjoy the hardy winter greens that are still abundant and appreciated. One interesting one that I never came across in America, is what I like to call a two for one, Catalogna/Puntarelle. This sturdy chicory is also known as Catalogna and hails from the south and favored as a Roman favorite. It is eaten up here, but not as familiar to the locals. It gets a little confusing as there are two varieties that look quite alike until further inspection reveals that one variety has an inner base, that looks like it has an alien about to pop out of it's pod. The other just a spikey dandelion type leafy green with no surprises, other than the fact it is more pungent or bitter than what most north American palates are use to eating. I unknowingly purchased them interchangeably for quite awhile before discovering this secret vegetable within a vegetable. I overheard one of our market vendors one day while I was waiting to be served, explain the differences to a potential customer, exactly how to prepare them both. It was a revelation. I did miss a couple of details, but got the general gist of it.
Imagine my surprise when I peeled away the green outer stems and ta da, the naked alien was a sight to behold, la Puntarelle. Cut off the base if it is hard, and discard. Earlier in the season this will be tender and good, but as the spring gets warmer the base gets harder and bitter. Take the rest of the vegetable and cut in half lengthwise so it will lay flavor so all the rolly rounds will at least hold still as you thinly slice them into rounds. I hear there are special cutters down in Rome that are used to get the slices paper thin.
One of the tricks with bitter greens and such is to cut them very thin as they get coated with more of the dressing which will take away much of the bitterness. The normal dressing for Puntarelle salad is a garlic, anchovy, olive oil and lemon combination, along the lines of ceasar dressing with out the egg, or an oil and vinegar affair that goes nicely with the greens. I find that a quick dash of balsamic vinegar and flavorful olive oil is a quick tasty way to make these raw greens sing.
Now you still have the green tops, or the Catalogna, that you peeled away earlier. Chop them crosswise into thin pieces as well and cook them up with a bit of onion and bacon if you like, before finishing them off, boiling till tender, although I like them boiled with salt, pepper and a little olive oil, just fine. The photo below is how not to chop them, but they tasted great anyway, just difficult to manage on your fork.