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Flavor First

A Taste of Italy
By Cheryl Forberg, RD

Puntarelle alla Romana

Although we can potentially identify hundreds of different flavors, our tongue registers just five basic tastes. When we eat, the thousands of taste buds on our tongue send instant signals to the brain, contributing to the overall sensation of flavor. The five tastes are:

  • Sweet. If you have a powerful sweet tooth, you’re not alone! Many of us (myself included) have an innate preference for sweet foods -- that is, we naturally crave the taste.
  • Sour. The puckering reaction we have to acidic foods like vinegar, cranberries, citrus fruits like lemon and limes and even some vegetables like rhubarb,[6] may seem unpleasant on its own. Sour notes can add complexity to a recipe and help balance out other elements; and a mild tart taste can add to the overall sensation of refreshment, as in a lemon sorbet.
  • Salty. Sodium chloride – table salt – is the most common source of salty sensation. Salt can enhance natural flavors and balance other spices, but it can also dominate our palates, so that we fail to notice other, subtler tastes. Reducing salt can not only open a whole new world of flavor, but it can help boost overall health.
  • Savory (umami). A relative newcomer to the roster of five basic tastes, umami, a Japanese word that translates as “savory” or “meaty”, was identified in the early 1900s, and has been gaining in popularity in recent years. The rich, silky taste is associated with glutamate, originally found in a seaweed used to make soup in Japan but which is also found in soup stocks, mushrooms, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese.
  • Bitter. Interestingly, we have more flavor receptors for bitter than any of the other tastes. Our ability to sense bitterness may have originally helped our predecessors avoid plants full of poisonous alkaloids. But while many Americans tend to favor sweets and avoid extremely bitter foods, there are plenty of milder variations of this taste sensation we’ve learned to enjoy – our morning cup of coffee or evening glass of wine both have bitter notes, for example. Coffee, grapefruit skin and tonic water (which contains bitter quinine) are other sources of this taste sensation we tolerate.
Italian cuisine on the other hand, has long prized many bitter ingredients beyond coffee and tonic water. Liqueurs with bitters (such as Campari and Cynar), and numerous vegetables including artichokes, and the chicory family (which is related to sunflowers and daisies) are staples in the Italian diet. Escarole, endive, radicchio and frisee are commonplace throughout Italy, throughout the year. But there’s a very special member of the chicory family that is rarely found on the American table, and hopefully that’s about to change. Its Italian name is Puntarelle also known as Asparagus Chicory.

I had never prepared it before this week and everything about it was new to me. About the size of a bunch of celery, the outer leaves are peeled away and can be chopped and braised as a vegetable dish or added to soup. Inside lies a delicacy in the form of a cluster of shoots that are crisp and hollow. They are separated, thinly sliced and then soaked in ice water which not only removes some of the bitterness, but also causes the thin wisps to curl. Puntarelle can be cooked and served as a vegetable dish, added to pasta, or eaten the classic way, as a salad.

If you have trouble finding Puntarelle, you can substitute the same volume (3 to 4 cups) of another form of chicory or lettuce in this simple but tasty salad recipe. Serve with pizza or pasta for a real taste of Italy.

Puntarelle alla Romana
4 small or two large salads

Ingredients for Puntarelle alla Romana


1 bunch Puntarelle 3 anchovy filets (I used oil-packed)
2 teaspoons chopped garlic
1 tablespoon red wine or balsamic vinegar
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
¾ teaspoon salt
Cracked black pepper


Peel outer leaves off the puntarelle and reserve for another use.

Slice the bottom inch or so off the bottom of the rosette of puntarelle shoots and discard.

Carefully separate the shoots, halve them lengthwise, and then thinly slice the halves, lengthwise. Transfer to a bowl of ice water while you prepare the dressing.

In a small bowl, mash the anchovies and garlic together. Stir in the vinegar.

In a small bowl, mash the anchovies and garlic together. Stir in the vinegar.

Slowly drizzle in the oil as you continue to blend the mixture. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Drain the puntarella well and pat dry with a paper towel. There will be 3 to 4 cups. Transfer to a medium bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well.

Drain the puntarella well and pat dry with a paper towel. There will be 3 to 4 cups. Transfer to a medium bowl. Pour the dressing over the salad and toss well.

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