Friday, March 1, 2013

Puntarella: An Introduction

Today I want to introduce you to puntarelle, a (very) popular vegetable in Rome from the chicory family. Do you know it? It is odd-looking and not-so-easy to find in the states. It is also a little bitter and laborious to prepare. Once cleaned, sliced thin, and let to soak, it curls up like celery. These darling curls are tossed with an in-your-face raw garlic and anchovy dressing, and then sometimes it is mixed with even more bitter greens.

And still I want to tell you about it?  And you still want to hear about it? It doesn't make sense, but yes.

If you had described this concoction to me three weeks ago I would have smiled sweetly and made a mad-dash for the exit sign. I have never really done anchovies, and being pregnant makes me even more suspicious of anything new, old, or in-between. And greens! I have tried to like frisee a cousin of puntarelle, but it is just too hairy.

I found myself alone at a restaurant (read NY Times review of Osteria Stellina here, their website does not reflect their quality) in Point Reyes Station a couple weekends ago, ordering a salad of mustard greens, "puntarella," pine nuts, and white anchovy dressing. I get a little cavalier when I dine alone. It also helped that every other salad had cheese on it, and I wanted to go dairy-free that night.

I really didn't think about the vegetable again until I was at the Co-op on Saturday, therapy-shopping. (I know, what about that simplicity in Lent, right? More on that in a couple posts.) On the center shelf was this weird asparagus-like-clustered-thing peeping out from between the frisee and the radicchio. I had never seen it before, and I certainly did not relate it to that salad I had on the coast. It made me pause. In a moment of spontaneity (and greed) I put it in my basket. Then I proceeded to feel guilty about buying such a ludicrous item when my fridge (and my car--farmer's market was that morning you know) was already well stocked with produce. I put it back, and I felt so holy.

The next week, however, with my refrigerator just as packed as before, I bought it anyway.

At the register, the cashier had to do a price check and a name check, and there was much conversation between him, myself, and the cashier next to us. What is it? How do you prepare it? Where did it come from?

I should have known. The name sounds Italian, and the vegetable, according to some, is second only to the artichoke in Rome. Artichokes look freakish too. The produce guy came back with the name and the price and also how to prepare it.


I don't know what it is about the mix, but when I eat the salad my whole body perks up. Maybe it is the anchovies, tail-slapping my senses, or the garlic. But to pull off such a hard-core dressing you've got to be a pretty hard-core vegetable. And it is.

Puntarelle is crunchy, ever-so-slightly bitter, and strangely sweet when paired with the garlic and anchovies. I don't know how. This same phenomenon happens with the mustard greens or any other bitter green. So if you can't find puntarelle, go for a mixture of young mustard or dandelion greens and endive. Bitter crunch, with a sweet end. Sounds like my week. Added: my dear sister reminds me that the salad tastes especially good with pizza, and, I might add, Italian-inspired dishes. Let me know if you try it, whether here or in Rome.

Puntarelle with Anchovy Dressing

I consulted these websites for information and recipe guidance.

Please note that the recipe below includes optional ingredients, designated: "if you have them". I did not have them, but they definitely add dimension and thrill to an otherwise simple salad. I would get the extras if I were having guests; I would use them only half the time even when I have them. 

Oh, and I also didn't have/couldn't find salt-packed anchovies or the white anchovies, so I opted for the oil-packed variety this round (which is near apostasy in some circles). The salad I had at the restaurant tasted more purely of anchovies. If you want the stronger flavor, use the greater amount called for here.

Serves 2-4, depending how eager the person.
1 pound puntarelle
1/2 pound mustard greens (if you have them)
handful or two pine nuts (if you have them)

4-6 anchovies packed in salt or oil, or white anchovies
2 medium cloves garlic,
1/4 teaspoon salt, or more to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon
1-2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
freshly cracked black pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

Separate the shoots of the puntarelle and slice thinly. Let soak in some ice water while you prepare the dressing. Wash and dry the mustard greens, if using.

Mash together the anchovies, garlic, and salt to form a paste. Add the lemon juice (or vinegar, or equivalent of both) and mix until a little more incorporated. Add pepper and olive oil and mix again. Taste and adjust seasoning. Set aside.

When you are ready to serve the salad, drain and dry punterella (well!) and place in a big bowl. Add mustard greens and pine nuts and drizzle half of the dressing over the mixture. Using your hands, toss the salad, making sure to coat everything. Taste, and add more dressing if hasn't quite done the coating job. Serve with extra dressing on the side. Enjoy!


  1. I LOVE reading your blog:) It makes me feel like I want to run out and gather all the ingredients and attempt the recipe!!

  2. this was so satisfying, especially with pizza =)

    1. Thanks Mara, I'll make a note of that...I had it last night with bratwurst...good but somehow too cross-cultural.