(note: I’m slowly migrating some of the recipe posts I made a while ago on Facebook to this blog. This recipe was originally posted to FB on Dec 11, 2009. Puntarella, like most chicories, is in season during the winter months, between November and February in this area.)
What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever encountered at the farm stand or produce section? I saw a bin filled with these alien-looking plants at the farm stand.
Look how crazy this thing is? How would anyone think this thing is edible?
It’s even freakier if you look at it from the top, where you can see outer leaves and little pod-like things in the middle. Is this an alien pod plant, come to steal our souls?
When I saw this at the farm stand, I just had to know what it was, how it was prepared, and what it tasted like. Fortunately, my friend-farmers over at Tierra Vegetables know what they’re growing and selling, because they grow what they eat and eat what they grow. They’re my number one resource when trying out something new. As I learned, this is called “puntarelle” (a type of chicory) and is a delicacy in Italy.
That certainly intrigued me, and made me a little apprehensive. I am not a fan of bitter, and just the name “chicory” sets off bitter alarms on my tongue. But Evie assured me that with a little cooking, it would mellow in flavor and be quite delicious. So, in keeping with my personal policy of trying something new before deciding whether I like it or not, I bought two and took them home. She also shared with me the three layer cheesy-soupy-casserole recipe that Wayne used, which I modified slightly to use items I had on hand.
(It wasn’t until I had already cooked this recipe that I learned it is usually eaten as a kind of salad in Rome. Frankly, as good as many of the recipes I’ve found online look, I think I will continue to cook it this way.)
When cooking, especially when embarking on something completely new and somewhat complicated, I like to gather all the ingredients together before starting, just so I can keep track of what needs to be prepped and what goes in next.
As with pretty much everything I cook, the first step was to sautée onions, garlic and mushrooms. Really, is there anything that smells as good as an onion sautéing?
Then I added the sausage, which had been cut into small pieces so they could release as much of their flavor in the final dish as possible.
While the sausage was sautéing, it was time to prep the Puntarelle. First, I cut out the inner pods, and washed them.
Then, I sliced them into small circles.
I was a bit surprised that they were hollow inside. I guess I expected there to be seeds inside, or flowers, or something.
To cut down on the bitterness, I gave the puntarelle a quick blanche. I chopped up the pods and the outer leaves and dropped them into a pot of water, salted it liberally, and brought it all to a quick boil.
And then, just as quickly, dropped everything into a bowl of ice water, to keep it from actually cooking.
While the puntarelle was cooling and the sausage was still sautéing, I shredded or sliced the cheese. For this recipe, I used a mix of cheeses I had on hand: mozzarella, cheddar, and Parmesan. I shredded the cheddar and Parmesan, while I only sliced the mozzarella, and kept them all separate.
Finally, it was time to assemble the delicious layers of sausage, cheese and puntarelle in a large soup pot.
First to go in was the stock. I used one of my smaller containers of stock that I almost always have in the freezer. If you know me, you know I have an obsession with making and using homemade stock. But you can certainly use any kind of stock you have on hand. I would say for this dish, you’ll need at least one quart of stock. You can, of course, use less and make this less soupy. Or more, and make it into actual soup.
Next came the puntarelle. I wanted this to stay on the bottom, and cook in the stock and slowly get the drippings from the sausage and cheese, so I put it all in at once on the bottom.
A layer of shredded cheddar and Parmesan cheese.
And then a layer of the sautéed sausage, onion and mushroom.
I decided to leave the mozzarella in slices so when they melt, they’ll get all gooey and cheesy. Plus, it was just easier to slice than shred.
Then I did another layer of sausage, and then the rest of the shredded cheddar and Parmesan cheese.
Then I put a lid on it, set the temp to medium and pretty much walked away for about half an hour, while it bubbled and simmered in the stock, the cheese melted, and all the flavors melded. It smelled so delicious!
When everything was ready to eat, I served it up in a dish with a side of toasty homemade whole wheat bread. You can see how the cheese is all melty in the stock. And I was surprised at how NOT bitter it was. It had a wonderful savory flavor.
You see! It pays to be curious! Not only did I learn about an interesting plant, but I also learned how much I really like it! I can’t wait until next winter when I can get some more Puntarelle!