March 27, 2013
What's Cooking

A Puntarelle Project

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Signature salad from Rome is made with chicory shoots . . . .

When not in Rome, you can still do as the Romans do and prepare puntarelle salad. 

There’s a wider world of leafy greens on our doorsteps nowadays. Recently, I was delighted to stumble across puntarelle chicory. I scooped it up and merrily drove home to prepare my first puntarelle salad, pronto.

This is not a meek salad, this Roman specialty of slivered chicory shoots tossed with a knock-out garlic and anchovy dressing. And since puntarelle is seasonal, it is a fleeting pleasure. My puntarelle appeared earlier this month at the Fiesta Farms supermarket, and last weekend, I spied some more at the Harvest Wagon specialty greengrocer. The greengrocer specimens arrived from Italy and more are expected.

       A head of puntarelle chicory. Photo Credits: Susan Sampson
       Puntarelle head stripped down to the heart.

Puntarelle is also known as Roman chicory, catalogna de galatina, little tips or asparagus chicory. It doesn’t look like asparagus, though. It looks like two vegetables in one. At first sight, it’s easy to confuse puntarelle with catalogna a.k.a. the familiar Italian dandelion sold in many supermarkets. But look closely. Deep in the centre of the stalks, you’ll find a heart of pale, succulent, clustered shoots with asparagus-like tips, tightly held together on a woody base. The shoots are hollow and stubby – generally thicker than my thumb and 2 to 4 inches (5 to 19 cm) long.

It’s the shoots you want for puntarelle salad. To get to them, you have to strip off the surrounding leafy stalks. (Don’t toss these stalks out. With their succulent, convex, pastel green stems and jagged dark green leaves, they are a delicious bonus. Just lop a thin slice off the discolored or dried ends, chop them and use the greens like dandelion.)

       A puntarelle shoot in my (small) hand.

Getting a fix of puntarelle salad is not a slapdash venture. The shoots must be separated, slivered, soaked in ice water, thoroughly dried and dressed. In Rome, shoppers who are impatient to satisfy their puntarelle cravings can buy pre-slivered shoots at outdoor markets, where they are scooped from large vats. As another alternative, Romans can buy puntarelle shredders – small, simple tools with a wire grid. The cook pushes each shoot through the grid, almost to the tip, to create puntarelle frills.

I had to make do – a bit awkwardly – with a knife and a mandolin on the julienne setting, so that cute, neat curlicues were in short supply in my finished salad. Truthfully, the salad wasn’t much to look at. It was, however, tender, crispy and fabulously pungent. Want to dig in? Get the recipe: Roman Puntarelle Salad.

       A pile of crisp, pungent puntarelle salad.