Puntarelle or cicoria di catalogna (or cicoria asparago) is a variant of chicory. The heads are characterized by an elongated shape (about 40–50 cm), light green stems and dandelion shaped leaves. Puntarelle have a pleasantly bitter taste.
Puntarelle appear on vegetable stands in late winter and throughout the spring. Puntarelle are picked when they are young and tender and may be eaten raw or cooked. Often used as a traditional ingredient in the Roman salad of the same name, they are prepared with the leaves stripped and the shoots soaked in acidulated cold water until they curl. The salad is served with a dressing made of anchovy, garlic, vinegar, and salt, blended with olive oil.
Every time I go to the market I find something new and fascinating. Usually it's the food; some prepped and ready-to-cook vegetable dish, or a new seasonal arrival at the market that merits being photographed and then eaten. I also love to chat with the vendors and see what they're up to.
It's no small task for vendors to clean dozens upon dozens of veggies daily, to prepare the minestrone and ribollita that's for sale and, in this season, to clean puntarelle.
Puntarelle, pre-cleaning, look like this:
Once puntarelle are cut and cleaned and placed in acidulated water (cold water with lots of fresh squeezed lemon juice) they curl up and look like this:
The taste of this salad is nothing short of amazing. Hence, puntarelle sell like crazy when they're in season. They are so easy to make, that is, assuming you're not doing the cleaning. Very few buy uncleaned puntarelle. It's a laborious, time-consuming task.
The market vendors are amazing to watch cleaning all the different types of produce; incredibly fast and adept. Yet even the vendors have little tricks to do things faster and easier.
An elderly uncle of one of my trusted vendors was cleaning puntarelle with a hand-made tool that I would best describe as an artisanal julienne device. He cuts the puntarelle by pushing them through the device, rather than slicing them with a knife.
I loved his little tool and managed to purchase one of his extra handmade tools. I thought I'd be able to use it on other vegetables like carrots and zucchini but once I studied the tool better I realized it was a bit too delicate to use on them.
Here's how this ingenious little tool is made. There's a square of wood about half an inch thick with a whole cut out of the center. On each side of the circle there are two staggered rows of nails. A guitar string has then been woven back and forth between the nails creating the criss-crossed rows that you see below.
It's really quite ingenius in its simplicity and I'm glad to have welcomed it into my collection of odd & unique, but highly functional kitchen tools.
Nowadays you can find this tool, commercially made, and sold online. I've looked for it in the United States without success, but I did find this tool that would work well for the task.
To make the puntarelle dressing
- About ½ cup olive oil
- About ¼ cup white wine vinegar
- 1 small garlic clove
- 4 to 5 anchovy fillets
Blend until creamy, toss on your puntarelle and serve!
Spaghetti with puntarelle and anchovies
Spaghetti with puntarelle and anchovies is a typical pasta dish in the Roman cuisine. Although usually served in salads or as a side dish, puntarelle go very well with anchovies, so are an ideal condiment for pasta.
This pasta dish is very quick to prepare: the puntarelle cook in the same time as the spaghetti, and are then served with toasted bread crumbs to give a rustic touch to the recipe.
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