This unusual salad is a Roman speciality and a pretty splendid one at that: crispy, deliciously bitter curls of tender young puntarelle shoots tossed with a dressing of anchovies, garlic, vinegar and olive oil. Now is the season and its lasts until February. Personally, I will be making the most of it.
I had never encountered puntarelle or catalogna -a member of the chicory family sometimes known as asparagus chicory – until I moved to Rome. It is a distinctive loose leafed variety of chicory which originated in Italy with long white, pale green stalks/shoots and feathery leaves similar to those of dandelions.
I had already spied the splendid vast heads piled up in the market and the vats of iced cold water filled with bobbing curls to be sold ready prepared, but it wasn’t until one of our Wednesday lunches at Da Augusto in Trastevere that Alice and I first ate this salad: crisp, clean and delightfully bitter curls in a sharp, anchovy spiked dressing.
Back at the market, puntarelle in hand I pondered as to how this vast head of vibrantly green feathery shoots was to be transformed into the aforementioned salad. My trusty fruttivendolo Vincenzo must have seen the confusion in my eyes because he smiled and pointed at the curls bobbing away in the iced water he had prepared earlier. It took some time to convince him that I wanted to try and prepare it myself, he just shook his head and looked very concerned. Clearly he had little faith in my ability and kept pointing at the vat.
Finally and after some misunderstanding Vincenzo agreed to give me a lesson on the condition I took some of his prepared curls as well, the man knows how to strike a deal. Essentially preparation is simple, a little fiddly, but worth it. Fill a large bowl with cold water and ice cubes and set it aside. Pull the hollow bulbs from the head of puntarelle and stip away the other leaves, then, using a sharp knife cut each bulb lenghways into thin slices and drop each slice in the iced water. Leave the slices soaking for about an hour during which time they curl up and become beautifully crisp.
Once the punatelle is ready, it is drained and carefully dried before being tossed with a punchy and delicious dressing of anchovies, garlic, vinegar, salt, olive oil and twists of black pepper. It is then left to rest and the flavours mingle and settle before being served and devoured with bread to mop up the dressing.
I like this salad as I first ate it in Da Augusto, a contorno after a plate of Pollo alla Romana It also makes a palate stimulating starter with some good bread
Puntarelle alla Romana
A head of Puntarelle prepared as described, a large bowl of iced water, 2 cloves of garlic, 5 good quality salted anchovy fillets, 2 tbs of good red wine or balsamic vinegar, 5 tbsp good olive oil, a good pinch of salt, freshly ground black pepper.
Prepare the puntarelle as described above and leave in soaking in the iced water for a good hour until crisped and curly,
In a pestle and mortar crush the garlic into a paste with a pinch of salt.
In a small bowl mash the anchovies with the vinegar and stir until the anchovies have disintegrated.
Add the anchovy and vinegar to the garlic and add the oil. Stir well and allow to sit for 10minutes.
Drain the puntarelle and dry or spin it dry carefully.
Stir the dressing again before pouring it into the serving bowl. Tip in the puntarelle curls, grind over some black pepper and toss everything together.
Allow the salad to sit for a few minutes before tossing again and then serving with good bread