I love winter vegetables. Broccoli, cauliflower and fennel are all friends. But my favorite time of the year is when puntarelle start showing up in the markets.
If you’ve had puntarelle then you are probably swooning by now (it’s a love kind of thing). If you haven’t, then let me introduce you. Puntarelle is a type of chicory. Examining a head of puntarelle, it looks green and leafy – at least at first glance. But start to pry apart the outer leaves and you’ll soon find the pale green, crunchy center that sets this vegetable apart. The core of the vegetable grows into multiple pointy spears, that are almost asparagus like at the tips.
The taste is slightly bitter, with loads of crunch. In the winter, when it comes into season and is dressed with a lemony/garlic vinaigrette it’s what your sluggish body has been asking for, but didn’t realize . When I’ve tired of roasted root vegetables and every kind of boiled green, puntarelle is the fresh, crunch I crave.
Puntarelle is – like many of life’s pleasures – a pain to prep. First you must peel off the outer, dark green leafs. Then each spear must be cut off the central core. And finally, each tiny spear has to be cut lengthwise, into thin strips. The strips are then put into water, to lose some of their bitterness, and also to curl up.
Luckily, like all fussy vegetables, in Rome you can buy them prepared and ready to go at the most markets.
Back in the olden days (like ten years ago) the vendors in Campo dei Fiori would use a small, sharp knife to carefully cut the spears into strips. But then, all of a sudden, this nifty puntarelle cutter started showing up. I assumed each vendor made them himself, but it turns out it was one house ware guy who specialized in them. (It’s the stand across from the flower vendors) He’s even patented the thing, and has a web site.
The cutter is genius. A series of stainless steel wires are stretched across a small wooden frame, crossing to make a grid. The vegetable vendor then takes each puntarelle tip, and forces it through, before throwing it in its water bath to soak.
In case this is all too hard to understand, I’ve included a video. This way you have two choices. You can head over to your local market (if you are in Rome. Puntarelle are mostly a Rome thing) and buy a baggie of prepared puntarelle. Or, once you get to the market, buy your puntarelle whole, and pick up your own taglia puntarelle. Which ever way you do it, make sure to dress it with the incredibly addictive traditional dressing below.
Ooops! Forgot the third, most important and easiest option: order it in a restaurant whenever possible. Ask for it, since it may not even be on the menu, so fleeting is the season. My favorites include Pompiere and Da Gigetto, both in the Jewish Ghetto.
(enough to dress about 6 cups of puntarelle, or other salad)
1 clove garlic
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh pepper
juice from one lemon (about 1/4 cup juice)
1/3 cup olive oil
Put all the ingredients in a blender, and mix till blended. Taste and adjust. You might like it a bit less lemony, if so add more oil. But it is a very strong tasting dressing.