Puntarelle alla romana, abundant anchovies & a good slapping.
I cleaned out my top fridge-shelf this weekend (life under lockdown really is thrilling) and found no less than five open jars of half-eaten anchovies. I love anchovies, so much so that I paint them regularly, eat them almost daily and have invented a fictional character called Alberto the Anchovy who has adventures after his daring escape from eternal entrapment in a tiny tin. But even for me this seemed excessive. Luckily it is the time of year when one of my favourite vegetables, Puntarelle, appears, which is best eaten alla Romana, i.e. saucily dressed and dripping with a salty, sharp, anchovy-and-garlic-spiked dressing.
Puntarelle is a type of chicory (also known as Asparagus Chicory) and a good word to say too, a wonderful sing-song word which trips off the tongue - Punt-a-relle - for a delicious vegetable which is common in Lazio but harder to source here in Sardinia. Luckily my local fruit and vegetable market has one slightly eccentric stall which sometimes sells some of the more unusual vegetables and last week, to my great delight, I found a perky head of Puntarelle there waiting to be picked.
I first tried Puntarelle alla Romana not in Rome but on a bitter February day in Kilburn, about 10 years ago now, when I was working at my first job, as a chaotically clumsy commis chef at The Dock Kitchen. Stevie Parle (my long-suffering head chef) had trained at The River Cafe, travelled and eaten widely in Italy, and knew his Italian food back to front. By the time I worked for Stevie I had been to Italy myself a couple of times; once at age 15, whisked away to Venice by my grandparents as a special treat for their Golden Wedding anniversary, where we ate soft-shelled crabs lightly fried alongside slices of sweet zucchini, black rice with cuttlefish ink and gelato and custard-filled croissants for breakfast dusted with icing sugar. Then again when I was 18 and the same granny (she tried very hard) sent me on an art course in the vague hope I would absorb some culture but I (inevitably) spent the 6 weeks skipping lectures and absorbing gelato instead. Really I knew little of Italian food other than I loved it, and that it seemed more like an attitude - or way of life - than just a collection of delicious things to eat.
Then I began working for Stevie, and we had all our produce from Natoora (direct from the morning markets in Milan) and I started to really learn about and appreciate Italian food, but - almost more importantly - to learn about and appreciate Italian produce.
I began work at The Dock in December, and by February heads of Puntarelle were arriving; a white, succulent base out of which sprouted fat green fingers with long, dandelion-like leaves like dragon's-tails. We peeled away these long tendril-like leaves and discarded them, and snapped off the fingers from the bitter, fibrous base and chopped them thinly lengthways, then soaked them in iced water to make them crisp and remove a little of their bitterness.
Once they had crisped and curled slightly in their icy bath we drained them, patted them dry and dressed them in a delicious punchy dressing made of anchovies and garlic, pounded in a pestle and mortar and then mixed with red wine vinegar and some good strong olive oil. The resulting dish was a a revelation. How could such a simple salad be so intensely satisfying; so savoury, so sharp, so crisp and so complex? It instantly became one of my favourite dishes, and has remained so to this day.
Puntarelle alla Romana is an annoying dish to talk about if you don't have easy access to Puntarelle, I appreciate. However it is still worth talking about: fantasising about food is just as valid as eating/cooking it, and Puntarelle is now available on Ocado (pure observation: no sponsorship or endorsement of any kind - I hasten to add) and once we are able to travel again you can hopefully seek out and savour the real thing in a real Roman trattoria.
But, back to the fridge shelf and the jars of anchovies jostling for space. I had my head of Puntarelle, and I also had my special little cutting square for it - through which the green fingers are pushed to split and splay neatly into strips (you can just use a knife and finely slice lengthways if you prefer). I made my dressing with red wine vinegar (some use lemon but I prefer the punch of the vinegar here - it battles better with the bitterness) and the pounded anchovies and garlic and some punchy oil. I prepared and ate the entire head, dressed as it was with 10 anchovy fillets, with some crusty bread to mop up the juices. (Bechamel then licked the plate clean, and consequently her face/head/ears smell of anchovies, which is a little disconcerting.)
The whole arrangement is a salty slap in the face on a freezing February day, in the most pleasant and punchy way. As such, it is a happy edible reminder of my friend Loredana (see previous post) who is always more than ready to give me a good, friendly slap to shake me back to my senses, when I become brooding or melancholic, both of which I am prone to do, especially whilst we are - as the Italians put it - sotto Covid (this means 'under Covid' which seems a fittingly depressing way of describing the great grey cloud of contagion and confinement that hovers over us all).
Ti do uno schiaffo! (I'll give you a slap!), Loredana says, raising her hand in faux anger and grinning at me.
Failing me sending you Loredana, I hope this salad will do just that.
1 head of Puntarelle
8-10 anchovy fillets, drained of their oil
half a clove of garlic
2 tbsp red wine vinegar
5-6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
a pinch of salt
Get ready a large bowl full of iced water. Prepare the puntarelle (according to pictures) break away the fingers from the base, push them through your puntarelle cutter (if you have one) or simple slice them finely, and place them in the iced water.
Prepare your dressing. Ideally you want to make an emulsion here, so you can use a blender, a stick blender, or a pestle and mortar. Pound or blitz the anchovies and garlic with a pinch of salt. add the vinegar and then the oil and blend to form a smooth dressing. (if your dressing has split it is absolutely fine, the flavour will still be good, it will just look slightly different, but not worse).
Drain the puntarelle, pat it dry with kitchen roll or a clean tea towel, and then toss it well in the dressing.
Serve, with bread.
N.B. For those of you worrying about the other fridge shelves, I'm saving them for next weekend.