One of the dishes I miss most from my Roman days is the winter salad known as le puntarelle. Puntarelle are a kind of chicory native to the countryside around Rome. In fact, the vegetable is sometimes called “Roman chicory” in English. The shoots are rather thick but tender, white at the base and green at their tips. The taste is pleasantly bitter and peppery. When used in salads, puntarelle are typically peeled and cut into thin strips, then soaked in cold water until they curl up. They are then dressed in an anchovy vinaigrette.
So far as I know, puntarelle are not widely grown outside Italy. This source says that they are grown locally in California, but, in any event, I have never found them in the markets where I now live. But I can approximate the experience by using the tender white hearts of curly endive (which also a kind of chicory). Cut the stalks into short lengths, and dressing them with the same anchovy vinaigrette you would use for real puntarelle.
To make the vinaigrette, finely chopped a clove of garlic or pass it through a garlic press (one of the few good uses for that gadget, in my opinion) and place in a mortar (or a mixing bowl). Then add chopped anchovy fillets (either salted or canned will do fine), and grind them together into a paste. (If using a mixing bowl, you can just crush them as best you can with the back of a wooden spoon.) The paste need not be perfectly uniform; in fact, I prefer little bits of anchovy, which is more interesting to the eye and taste. Thin this paste out with a bit of either white or red vinegar (not too much, remember…) and then add a healthy pour of olive oil. Mix well with a fork or a whisk until well blended but not emulsified. Then season with a bit of salt (not too much as the anchovies, of course, are already salty) and freshly ground pepper. Pour over your greens and mix well. Adjust for seasoning and, if a bit dry, you can add a bit more olive oil. Serve with crusty bread so you can sop up the delicious dressing.
NOTES: You will find some non-Italian recipes calling for a bit of mustard to the anchovy vinaigrette, something that is not authentic and, in any event, does not appeal to me. On the other hand, I do like to add lots of freshly ground pepper, something that is not necessary 100% doc. As you may remember from an earlier post on making salads the Italian way, this is one of the only (perhaps the only) example in traditional Italian cooking of making salad dressing separately from the salad itself.
As an alternative to curly endive, some sources recommend radicchio which, though I’ve never tried it, would no doubt be nice. On occasion, I’ve used belgian endive with fine results.By the way, don’t disgard the green outer leaves of the curly endive. While they are too bitter raw to be eaten as a salad, when cooked they lose their bitterness and develop a wonderful, mild flavor in soups such as minestra di riso e cicoria or blanched and then sauteed with garlic and olive oil, a technique known as ripassare in padella.