Growing up we are constantly told to ‘eat your greens’. But it’s not made very easy for us in England. Overcooked, undersalted and watery cabbage was the order of the day when I was growing up in the 1970s. Here in Rome eating your greens is an unexpected pleasure.
What would be dismissed as weeds in most English restaurants, in Rome are served in almost every trattoria without question or ceremony. But what you do get is the excitement, almost an event, when these seasonal vegetables start appearing back on markets stalls and on restaurant menus. In Rome, this tradition of waiting for produce to be ready, the herald of a new season has not been lost. Every year the arrival of a different season’s produce captures me all over again. Puntarelle is one such treat that is looked forward to with an anticipation much akin to a green, slightly bitter version of Christmas.
You have to be introduced to puntarelle, otherwise you would never try it or even know that it existed. The ever adventurous Sam ordered it as a contorno (vegetable side dish) one evening and I was hooked. These little green shoots are native to Lazio and are in season from late October to early spring. They are soaked in iced water to make them pretty and curly. You can buy them ready prepared in market stalls or prepare them yourself at home with a tagliapuntarelle or puntarelle cutter.
Somewhat of an acquired taste, puntarelle are light green shoots (think a mild version of celery – it’s a winter chicory) dressed with a paste of anchovy, garlic, vinegar or lemon, oil and salt. I know it doesn’t sound that appealing, but trust me, it’s worth the initial skepticism. Fresh, crisp with its contrasting dressing it’s totally moorish. It makes a great starter or side dish to cut through the richness of your other courses. An American couple sitting next to me in a restaurant were so fascinated by my crunchy, curly greens, that they ordered some on the spot! The trouble is it’s a difficult one to both describe and recommend.
If you’re a visitor you’re probably here to try the the pizza, the ice-cream, the carbonara; but be a little more adventurous and you’ll have a real Roman dining experience, you’ll eat something nutritious in your carb-filled trip and you’ll impress the waiter at the same time. You’ll either love it or hate it, but you will have eaten something truly Roman.
For more season greens go to Eating Italy’s Travel Guide and Blog where this article first appeared.