Monday, 27 February 2017

Puntarelle - an Italian speciality chicory with a recipe for anchovy dressing

punterelle
Puntarelle is a type of Italian chicory, especially popular around Rome, but virtually impossible to find in the UK. I’ve tried growing it from seed for the last couple of years but have yet to get a truly satisfactory crop. Like other types of chicory, the seeds can be sown in late spring directly into the open ground. They germinate readily, and when mature, around October-December time, should have developed a swollen heart of tightly packed leaves and shoots, protected by the outer leaves. The growing plants need to be kept weed-free and watered regularly but need little in the way of specialist care. So far, I have managed copious numbers of floppy outer leaves, and not so much in the way of juicy, crunchy heart, which is where the true flavour and texture of puntarelle lies.
Puntarelle, growing
Puntarelle sends up lots of loose outer leaves before developing its inner heart. Take care when weeding the puntarelle bed: the  young plants do look a lot like dandelions.

Having said puntarelle is particularly associated with Rome, I was delighted to find the market stalls were groaning with plump puntarelle heads on a trip to Venice earlier this month, so while I wait to get a decent crop in England, I was able to make some fresh puntarelle salad for myself.

The traditional way to prepare puntarelle is with an anchovy dressing, Roman style. The outer leaves should be removed (don’t throw them away: they’re too bitter to eat raw but can be blanched and then braised or added to a casserole) to reveal the tightly packed core with lots of shoots and buds. These are light and crunchy with a slightly bitter edge, as you would expect from a chicory.


Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.
Once the outer leaves of the puntarelle head are removed, you can see the tightly packed  shoots at the core.

Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Break off, or slice the shoots, and shred finely with a sharp knife.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
Soaking the shredded puntarelle shoots in iced water helps to leach out of the residual bitterness and encourages the slivers to curl up attractively.
These inner shoots are shredded into matchsticks and plunged into iced water for up to an hour so that the slivers curl up. The finer they are shredded, the more they will curl. They are then lifted out of the water, quickly dried and tossed with the dressing, made with anchovies, olive oil and red wine vinegar (I also put a little Dijon mustard in the dressing) for a crisp, light and crunchy winter salad.

Recipe for puntarelle with anchovy vinaigrette

punterelle with anchovy
For one head of puntarelle:

3tbsp olive oil (good quality stuff)
3-4 anchovy fillets
1 clove garlic
1tsp Dijon mustard
2tsp red wine vinegar or to taste
Salt
Pepper

Chop up the anchovy fillets and add them to the olive oil (I did this in the bottom of the salad bowl). Crush the garlic and add that too. Mash the anchovy, garlic and oil mix together with fork or wooden spoon. Beat in the mustard. Add the drained puntarelle curls and toss well until all are covered. Drizzle over the vinegar a little bit at a time so that the resulting dressing isn’t too sharp, then season to taste.

Ever hopeful, I will be sowing puntarelle again in a couple of months time in the UK, in anticipation of fresh Roman-style chicory to keep me going over the next winter.

Where to buy the seeds: Cicoria Catalogna Puntarelle Brindisina, from Franchi Seeds 

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

Growing jicama in the UK



Back from her travels in Mexico before Christmas, MsMarmiteLover presented me with a small bag of jicama seeds. Jicama (Pachyrrizus erosus) is widely eaten in Mexico: its roots are peeled and sliced to eat raw, often with a squeeze of lime and some chilli. They are crisp and crunchy and taste fresh like apple, or water chestnuts. The seeds are very hard to come by in the UK, and here is our chance to try to raise a crop in London.

She knows I like a challenge.

Jicama is strictly speaking a tropical plant. It's a legume and in Mexico, and other Central American countries, it grows as a vine up to about 2m high. The very decorative blue or white flowers, reminiscent of wisteria, must unfortunately be removed if you are growing the plant as an vegetable crop. Taking the flowers makes the plant expend its energy developing the edible roots. It is only the roots which can be eaten: the beanpods and the seeds are poisonous.

To get these plants going in the UK, we need to get them going early. Soaking the seed for 24 hours prior to sowing helps with germination. They'll benefit from heat too, so I'll start the seeds in modules in the heated propagator and position it on the sunniest south-facing windowsill.

soaking jicama seeds
Soaking the seed for 24 hours before sowing will
help germination
If they're going to germinate they'll do so quite quickly but the seedlings will need to stay warm and light for as long as possible, so they'll stay on the windowsill, moving into a grown-up pot once the plants are big enough to handle. Once all danger of frost is past we'll transfer the plants to my greenhouse, which is sadly not heated but which happily hosts aubergines, sweet potatoes, and melon pears in the summer months. The plants will need some support if they are not to twine and trail around the greenhouse floor.

They need well-drained soil, loamy and/or sandy to help the roots develop smoothly, and also water in the growing months - irrigating the greenhouse isn't a problem - and after that, we just need a nice long warm summer. One like 2016 would do nicely, in fact.

Suppliers
Try Jungle Seeds  or Chiltern Seeds in the UK.