Going garden trendy with puntarella

Lee Reich The Associated Press
Friday April 20, 2001


POUND RIDGE, N.Y. — Chicory leads a double life. Its roots have long provided a cheap coffee substitute. Its leaves, by contrast, are upscale, enjoying trendy roles in gourmet salads. 

In the garden, the taste of the fresh-picked can be well worth the challenge of growing it. 

Latest to make a buzz in fashionable eating is a variety called “puntarella” (literally, little pointy thing) often referred to in the plural form, “puntarelle.” This is a chicory from the Rome region of Italy that looks like dandelion except for white, greenish tips. You split them lengthwise with a knife, dip them in cold water to make them curl, then serve them with a zesty dressing like anchovy. This masks the bitterness characteristic of chicories. 

Before puntarella, radicchio firmly established itself for its gorgeous Burgundy-and-cream-colored leaves that transform salads into art works. 

Then there is Belgian endive, or Witloof chicory, the tightly folded white beauties that a home gardener can grow by “forcing” endive roots in containers placed in darkness in a cellar or closet. 

Other chicories include leafy escarole and frisee, also called curly endive, with fine, frizzy leaves. 

The advent of puntarella on dining news pages sent me on a search for seeds. I learned that leaves served in New York restaurants were grown on California farms, but it took me a while to find a commercial seed source. 

Finally I located two: the Cook’s Garden of Londonderry, Vt., Tel. 800-457-9703, and a Canadian provider, Berton Seeds Co. Ltd., of Weston, Ont., Tel. 416-745-5655. I ordered packets from both on the chance that some would succeed and others fail. I plan to make both an early spring sowing aimed at a fall harvest and a fall sowing for a harvest the following spring. The plant is described as very winter hardy. 

The Ontario dealer said it’s grown successfully on Canadian farms. Judging by that, my northeastern climate should not be a problem. 

I do grow radicchio successfully, but it took me a while to find the right kind for my garden. I had no luck in several trials with an overwintering long-leaf variety called Treviso, much esteemed in Italy. I concluded that my climate was wrong or I just didn’t have the knack. I fared much better with a so-called Chioggia type that forms tightly wound, round heads and is widely adaptable in the United States for same-year harvests. 

I sow seed indoors under lights in late April and set out the plants in June. By mid-August I’m cutting heads, but they don’t have to be harvested all at once. They last in the ground for weeks. I’ve cut fine heads in October from that original June planting. Endives are rich in vitamins A, B and C. The Italian dictator, Benito Mussolini, thought radicchio soups were good for stomach ailments that chronically plagued him. 

Gardeners wanting to experiment with Belgian endive will add a new word to their vocabulary – chicons. 

In the chicon role, a home gardener puts roots, about seven inches long, in deep flower pots or waxed cardboard containers and loosely packs them with sand or a soilless mix. Darkness is essential in the growing site. A black plastic garbage bag could be a good substitute for a cellar or closet. You keep the pots well watered, but not drenched, in temperatures ranging between 50 and 75 degrees Fahrenheit. If everything goes well, in about three weeks you can boast that you’ve grown your own chicons. 

Lee Reich is a columnist for The Associated Press