Blu Aubergine Blog

Puntarelle

In many ways, it's the essence of Italian Food: it's seasonal, it's hyper-local, and it's a great use of a vegetable that may otherwise go unused, uneaten, and unappreciated. Puntarelle.

Its season begins as the cold weather descends upon the center of the Italian peninsula, and puntarelle usually don't last much beyond the winter months. Puntarelle means "little tips" in Italian -- these are the tender bottom ends of a specific variety of cicoria, or chicory. Cicoria is a bitter leafy green usually par-boiled and either served cold with lemon or sauteed in olive oil with garlic and chile pepper. It's ubiquitous in Rome, much like sauteed spinach is in Florence. But in the winter months, roughly November to March, Romans focus on the puntarelle, the stems of the chicory plant which are cleaned of any leaves, sliced lengthwise in thin strips, and soaked in cold water until they curl up. 

You'll see older Roman women and men in the markets of Rome working with great dexterity over a bucket of water, peeling and slicing the puntarelle so that customers can buy them already cleaned and ready to use. Much like the beloved Roman artichokes, puntarelle are a labor-intensive labor of love. 

When making puntarelle, one begins with the dressing: an unctuous vinaigrette flavored with ground anchovies, fresh garlic, lemon, and wine vinegar, with a healthy glug-glug of top quality extra-virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste. Then you mix this in with the cleaned puntarelle, and let it sit for 30 minutes or so. And then? Magic. The greens stay crispy, yet they absorb the flavor of the dressing, which you'll want to sop up with bread after you clean your dish of the greens.

It's a very old Roman recipe -- to my mind, probably assimilated into the Roman culinary canon from the city's Jewish community, because of its telltale use of anchovies (Jewish Romans often used {kosher} anchovies where Roman Catholics would use  guanciale, or cured pork cheek, as a salty flavor base in a recipe). The cool thing about puntarelle? It's a super-extra-totally Roman vegetable, so even people in nearby areas like Abruzzo, Tuscany, and Le Marche don't get to enjoy the bitter-savory winter contorno

It's really the original Caesar salad, in a way -- and actually from the land of the Caesars.

When in Rome? Head to the Campo de' Fiori market where you can purchase the greens and all the ingredients to make the salad at home. Then head to the famous Forno at the top of the piazza for some warm pizza bianca fresh out of the oven, to accompany the dish. 
If you're lucky, the Forno's sandwich shop, right across the tiny vicolo from the bakery, will be serving Pizza con le Puntarelle: a fabulous sandwich of the pizza bianca stuffed with puntarelle salad. Crunchy, chewy, warm, cool, salty, bitter, with the astringent zip of lemon and garlic...it's a heavenly Roman winter sandwich sure to make anyone a very happy campo-er.

When Rome is not your home? Puntarelle are, as noted, extremely local, though I have been lucky enough to stumble upon a special of puntarelle salad one cold winter night in New York, at the authentic and always-excellent Bar Pitti. When I asked the waiter in Italian where he'd managed to find puntarelle, he responded very simply, "eh, signora: dall'Italia. Ovviamente." From Italy. Obviously.


Puntarelle alla Romana
If you're not one of the lucky few who can get his or her hands on the real deal, you can approximate the texture and bitterness of the puntarelle by thinly slicing a mixture of celery and belgian endive lengthwise, then putting those slices in ice water so they curl a bit. Then mix with the dressing as you would the puntarelle. As with Caesar salad fans, you have those who like it heavy on the anchovies, and those who prefer a less fishy flavor. I think there should be a nice balance of flavor -- using the anchovy liberally, but mashed well, will give the dressing its best consistency.

8 oz. washed & dried puntarelle (sliced chicory stems curled in cold water)
1 clove garlic
1 lemon, for juicing
6 TBS. extra-virgin olive oil
1 TBS. red wine vinegar
1-2 anchovy fillets
salt & pepper to taste

- In a salad bowl, rub the garlic clove over the surface of the bowl and then with the tines of a fork, crush it a bit.

- Add the anchovy fillets and crush them with the fork as well.

- Squeeze the lemon juice over the garlic and anchovies, add the vinegar, and muddle the ingredients so they form a paste.

- Using the fork – or even better, a small whisk – add the olive oil in a thin stream until a vinaigrette forms. 

- Add salt and pepper to taste, or more oil if necessary. Toss puntarelle in vinaigrette and serve.