Something bitter. Because bitter is better. I’m talking about puntarelle (cicoria catalogna), a member of the big, beautiful, bitter family of chicories that also includes endive, escarole and all those lovely varieties of radicchio, such as Castelfranco, Verona, Treviso and Tardivo. We Italians love our chicories, many of which have been cultivated in the Veneto region since the 15th century. You could say we have a taste for the bitter.
Puntarelle, named for the core of fat, pointy-tipped stems hidden within spiky outer leaves, thrive a little farther south. They are cultivated in the countryside around Rome, and right now they are everywhere ~ that is if you happen to be in Rome, which I am not (not that I’m bitter). The Romans revere puntarelle and serve them as a salad, aptly called puntarelle alla romana, dressed with a simple anchovy vinaigrette. A puntarelle salad brightens the stodgiest stew; it adds star power to a plain roast chicken. It will roust you from the deepest winter doldrums.
What’s not so simple is a) finding puntarelle, and b) prepping them. They’re not yet available in most supermarkets, or even at most farmers’ markets. But I keep hearing more and more about them, and as our interest in this, and other more obscure vegetables ~ hello cardoons! ~ grows I’m hoping availability will follow.
I found these through a California company called Royal Rose. Or, I should say, they found me. They emailed asking for permission to post my recipe for Chicory Salad with Anchovy Dressing from The Glorious Vegetables of Italy on their Facebook page. When I said yes (of course!), they graciously offered to send along some samples. Royal Rose, which also cultivates several types several types of radicchio, sells mainly to chefs and retailers. But they’re getting a growing number of requests from individuals, so they’ve created this card, which allows you to request their products from your grocer. It’s a step.
Also, if you happen to be a gardener, Seeds from Italy has several different varieties of puntarelle. They also sell seeds for dozens of other chicories with fabulous names like Pan di Zucchero (sugar loaf) and Cuor d’Oro (gold heart), and more than a dozen types of radicchio.
Now for the prepping, which takes a little time and some elbow grease, but isn’t difficult and is certainly worth the bit of effort required. Produce vendors in Rome use this clever wire grid gadget to make quick work of it. But we just have our knife and cutting board so that’s what we’re going to use.
First, remove the skinny outer leaves (top image), which you won’t need for the salad ~ you can sauté those with garlic in olive oil or save them for soup. Pull or cut apart the fat, hollow stems at the core of the head (shown in the second photo). These are white on the bottom, with pale green asparagus-like tips.
When they’re done soaking, drain them in a colander; then pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. At this point you can either dress them with your anchovy vinaigrette or put them in a bag and store them in the refrigerator for a couple of hours.
By the way, don’t wring your hands if you can’t find puntarelle. You can make this salad with other types of chicory, including frisée, radicchio, or leaves of Belgian endive, which you can slice into long strips (a tip I learned from Marcella Hazan). Whichever greens (or reds) you use, be sure to soak them in ice water, which will give them extra crunch and curl.
You can read more (in Italian) on the cultivation of puntarelle here.
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Looking for a Valentine’s Day gift? Why not give the soup lover in your life my online class on authentic, heartwarming Italian soups? Details and a $10 discount here.
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And now for something sweet. There are lots of Valentine’s Day treats floating around the web. Here are a few that set my heart beating faster.
* French Pudding au Chocolat from Jamie at Life’s a Feast
* Tortino al Cioccolato from Carolina at Semplicemente Pepe Rosa
* Salted Chocolate Ganache and Jam Bars from Laura at Tutti Dolci
* Dark Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Rose Cream from Maureen Abood at Rosewater and Orange Blossoms
This appealingly bitter and crunchy winter salad is made from a particular variety of chicory that grows in the countryside around Rome. If you can't find puntarelle, substitute curly endive (frisee), Belgian endive or radicchio.
- 2 (1 lb) heads puntarelle or other chicory
- 1 large clove garlic
- Pinch of coarse sea salt
- 4 oil-packed anchovy fillets (see Note)
- 2 tablespoons white or red wine vinegar
- 4 tablespoons really good extra-virgin olive oil
- Freshly ground black pepper
Clean, trim and cut the puntarelle according to the instructions in this post. If using radicchio or a different chicory, tear the leaves into bite-sized pieces. Soak the puntarelle in a bowl of ice water for at least 1 hour, until they curl. Drain and pat dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towels. Place the puntarelle in a salad bowl.
Mash together the garlic and sea salt ~ I use a small marble mortar and pestle. (If you don't have a mortar and pestle you can do this on a cutting board using the flat side of a chef's knife.)
Add the anchovy fillets and pound until coarsely mashed. (If you're doing this on the cutting board, transfer the garlic-anchovy paste to a small bowl.) Stir in the vinegar and mix well. Dribble in the oil and stir until well combined.
Drizzle the dressing over the puntarelle and season with a generous grinding of black pepper. Toss to combine, and serve.
NOTE This recipe depends on the integrity of its ingredients. Be sure to use a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil and good anchovies. My favorite anchovies (as you may already know) are Rizzoli alici in salsa piccante.