I’m a great fan of puntarella, an Italian veg of the chicory family. Sevvy, the ebullient owner of Horrocks the greengrocer in East Wittering near our old home in Chichester, always has it in stock in season and is certain that it is a great winter veg for good gut health. That aside, I just love the taste of it.
This is one of Sevvy’s pics of puntarella, a slightly alarming but intriguing looking vegetable! I certainly hadn’t seen any up here in Orkney while shopping but, yet again, William Shearers came up trumps and managed to get a box of them for me from Glasgow market. It’s expensive this year, but Italy has had real weather problems and these veg had to come a long way to Orkney. The leaves could well be used in risottos and stocks but they are too bitter for me - I want to go straight for the heart, which looks like a cross between chicory chicons and the dead mans fingers in a crab! Mmmn - I wonder if I am selling this to you?! They taste like a cross between chicory, avocado and the heart of a globe artichoke: exotic. Here are four of the dishes that I cooked with my puntarella - you could try any of them with Florence fennel.
This is the most traditional way of serving puntarella that I have come across. Break the heart into segments (which I shall call chicons from now on) and cut them if some are larger than others. Season and roast with olive oil in a hot oven for about 20 minutes or until tender but still retaining a bite. Mix with chopped hard-boiled egg, lemon zest and a little juice, chopped anchovies, capers and Parmesan. It’s a meal in itself with good bread.
This dish, using some succulent Orcadian haddock, is one step on from my dish of cod or haddock with orange buttered greens which has been such a favourite with readers over the years. I sautéed halved chicons of puntarella in olive oil with a little garlic and red chilli. I then added a handful of shredded spinach with the zest of 2 oranges and the chopped flesh of one, with salt and pepper. I nestled the haddock into the mix, covered the pan and cooked it for 4-5 minutes, until the fish was just done. I then put the haddock and veg onto plates, added the juice from the remaining orange and a large knob of butter (about 25g) and cooked that quickly until the sauce was slightly thickened. Season again, spoon the sauce over the fish and scatter with chopped parsley or celery leaves.
This risotto was made with some onion and puntarella sautéed with fennel seeds before the arborio rice was added and fried in the juices. I simply added boiling water and, when the rice was half cooked and I added more liquid I also added some salmon fillets. With plenty of pepper and not too much salt, the risotto was simple and full of flavour and I could have added Parmesan but we had some left-over haggis and visitors in the house, and so it became an Orcadian surf-and-turf risotto. I just dry-fried the haggis and scattered it over the risotto. We all loved it!
For my final Puntarella Special of the year I returned to another favourite for inspiration. There is one salad that has been a huge favourite in demonstrations and tastings whenever I have made it - roasted fennel with fresh lemon pickle. I prepared the puntarella into chicons and roasted them in olive oil for about 10 minutes before adding a bulb of fennel (Florence fennel), trimmed and cut into matchsticks about 3-4 cm long and 6mm thick. This took a further 15 minutes to cook with a stir half way through. While the veg were roasting I cut up a large lemon: trim the ends, cut it in half and cut away the central core. Roughly chop the whole lemon, flesh and pith, removing the seeds as you find them, then chop the lemon very finely. Place in a salad bowl with 1tbsp sea salt, stir and set aside. When the veg are cooked drizzle with a little balsamic, then add the hot veg to the fresh lemon pickle and toss them together, adding pepper and a little more balsamic. I then added about 1 tbsp raisins (for just a little sweetness), a chopped red chilli, and some of the wonderful smoked mussels that are available here on Orkney. You could add canned smoked mussels, anchovies or even slivers of salami. Another meal in one, especially if served with oatcakes or the beremeal bannocks that we bake in Orkney.
All these dishes are simple, hugely tasty ideas for jaded palettes longing for summer food. Puntarella, my inspiration, might have a short season and not be widely available, but you could try any of these not only with Florence or bulb fennel as previously suggested, but also with the more widely available red and white chicory. It’s Something Different - and they are all pretty quick to prepare with little washing up. I was going to say one-pot, but there’s that extra frying pan to dry fry the haggis...