Puntarelle salad

Italians seem to be devoted to their bitter greens. Wander around a weekend market or even a supermarket veg section and you’ll see 3 or more different kinds of cicoria or chicory.It must be a measure of the esteem in which the vegetable is held, a bit like we Brits get excited over different varieties of potatoes. Well some of us, anyway.

Puntarelle was a completely new to me; in fact I ignored it for ages, as it looked kind of hostile lurking two down from the onions in my local Maxisidis. As far as I was concerned, a pointy, butch-looking cross between Swiss chard and barbed wire should come with instructions or rendered bland in a bag for the uninitiated. Actually, in Rome where this veggie is adored, you can buy it ready prepared.

And it is a fag to prep. Start an hour or so before you want to eat it, and corral a couple of helpers – patient ones, preferably, otherwise they’ll start whinging about 10 minutes into the task.

The entire cicoria catalogna head can be eaten, but it is the asparagus shaped buds in the centre that are the actual puntarelle. Chef Franco Taruschio used only these tips to make a salad; but my girlfriend Clare who lived in Rome for many years is a firm believer in using the outer stalks. Me, I’m still learning. What they both agree on, is dropping the prepared chicory into cold water to make the pieces curl.

For 4-5 people:

1 head of cicoria catalogna
4 anchovy fillets
2 garlic cloves
50ml extra virgin olive oil

To prepare the outer long pointy leaves, trim off the greenery by slicing down either side of the central stem – use the leaves for another dish. Remove any blemished or stringy bits then half or quarter the stem – depending on the thickness – lengthways, and put the batons straight into a bowl of very cold water.

To prepare the puntarelle, cut each inner spear 3/4s of the way down from the base to the tip and then repeat to quarter the stem and then put it in the water.

It will take around 15 minutes for the pieces to curl. Drain and pat dry, and the chicory is now ready to be turned into a salad.

While the chicory is soaking, make the anchovy dressing. Crush the anchovy fillets and garlic cloves together in a pestle and mortar to make a paste. Then add the oil, continuing to pound the mixture to create a smooth dressing. Pour this over the salad and use your hands to toss it through the chicory pieces.

Variation: This salad can also be used as a topping for a pizza bianca (pizza without tomato sauce).