I don’t do birthdays, but one year an Italian friend and I discovered we share the same birthday month of March and impulsively decided to throw a joint party at his vineyard. He had a plan to import to Lucca a great delicacy found only in Rome, where he and his partner used to live. It was just the season for puntarelle. I don’t have a photo and, photo police being what they are, I don’t dare steal one, but here’s a good one that shows you how it got the nickname ‘asparagus chicory’ (scroll down to the second photo and beware the intrusive pop-up ads).
Its Latin name is Cichorium intybus and it shares with the whole chicory family a pleasantly bitter flavour. The season is longer than I’d thought: it can be sown from August until December and harvested from December until April. It used to be cultivated only in Lazio and adjacent parts of Campania, but a fortnight ago I found it in the Casabasciana village shop. The heads look like the photo at this link.
As I was buying one, Renato, the shop owner, asked me how I prepare it. As a salad, I replied, thinking back to the recipe in the River Cafe Cookbook Green, which includes celery, salted anchovies, peperoncino (chile pepper), oil and lemon juice. Since there are so few of us here in winter, there are no salted anchovies for sale in the shop so I bought a jar of them preserved in oil.
What about the leaves, Renato persisted. I recognised the ‘waste not, want not’ tone of voice. I boil them like ordinary chicory and dress them with oil and lemon juice, I lied, while vowing to myself to convert it to the truth. A nod of approval from Renato showed I’d passed the test.
Preparation of the salad is a little long-winded, because you have to remove the outer leaves and then separate the buds, the asparagus-like shoots, from the ample root and slice them lengthwise into thin strips, which you soak in iced water for at least an hour. This causes them to form pretty curls, like the radish flowers we used to make in the ‘70s, and draws out some of the bitterness. The first link in this blog gives the classic Roman recipe in which the crispy curls of puntarelle are dressed in an emulsion of garlic, anchovies under oil, olive oil and wine vinegar. Even if you don’t read Italian, the pictures are so clear that you should have no problem following the recipe. The River Cafe version is slightly more elaborate, the fate of most Italian recipes that emigrate to other countries, but is delicious nonetheless.
Next year I’m going to try the Roman version.
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