At Skye Gyngell’s wonderful new restaurant, Spring, where I had lunch yesterday, I was surprised and delighted to find punterelle on the menu. This long-stemmed winter chicory is prized by the Italians and found in every market in Rome during its short season (now until February), but is still a rare ingredient to discover on London menus.
Its name: punterelle – which translates as point, tip or spike in Italian, refers to the hollow white shoots hidden underneath the swathes of long dandelion shaped leaves. The most prized part of the plant is the inner heart, which once stripped of its outer leaves is sliced into fine spikes. It has a crisp texture with a refreshing, gently bitter flavour. More delicate that most bitter chicories, it suits strong flavours and is traditionally dressed with a sauce of chilli, garlic, anchovies and vinegar to make punterelle Romana. The protective outer leaves are often discarded, but I like to use them too. Cooked in plenty of boiling, salted water, which softens their bitterness, and braised with some garlic and dressed with oil and lemon, they make a good substitute for chard or other green leaves.
I first came across this unusual plant when I lived in Rome many years ago, in the fruit and vegetable market of Campo de Fiori. I would see it piled high on the stalls beside great bowls of iced water, filled with the white stems, ready prepared into finely sliced, curled spikes. There is a knack to stripping off the outer leaves and slicing the pointy tips which the market sellers have got down to a fine and speedy art, they even use a little tool to get the slices matchstick thin. By putting the prepared spikes into iced water, it not only keeps them fresh and crunchy but causes the slices to delicately curl, which makes them look even prettier on the plate.
There’s no sign of punterelle flooding our markets yet, or of it being sold ready prepared like the Romans do. So far I’ve found it in a few specialist greengrocers (Andreas in Chelsea Green and Mechanicou Bros. in Holland Park) and at the La Fromagerie in Marylebone. So for the time being it remains a rare seasonal delicacy to discover.
Roman style is still my favourite way to eat these tender shoots: below is the recipe, but should you not find any punterelle this season, the dressing used for punterelle Romana is worth making anyway – use it to dress other chicories, as a dip for raw vegetables or a sauce for lamb chops.
2 large heads of punterelle
6 whole, salted anchovies
1 clove garlic
A large pinch of hot dried chilli flakes
1tbsp good quality red wine vinegar
A squeeze of lemon juice
4tbsp extra virgin olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Strip the long green outer leaves from the punterelle to expose the inner heart. (The outer leaves can be reserved and cooked later see above).
Snap or cut the small points or spears from the heart and then slice each one into fine slivers.
Put the slices into a bowl of iced water and set aside or refrigerate until needed – they can keep like this for up to a day in the fridge.
Meanwhile, make the dressing:
Rinse the anchovies well to remove the salt and gently remove the fillets from each side of the backbone. I find this easiest to do under a tap of running water.
Pat the fillets dry with kitchen towel and then chop finely.
Finely chop the garlic and put it in a bowl with the anchovy. Add the chilli flakes, vinegar and lemon juice. Mix well and then add the olive oil and salt and pepper. Taste the sauce and adjust with vinegar, lemon or oil as necessary. It should be salty, chilli and sharp tasting. The sauce can be made several hours in advance if necessary – the flavour will only improve if it’s left to sit.
Just before you are ready to serve. drain the punterelle from the water and pat dry. Put it in a bowl and dress with the sauce. Allow it to sit for 5 minutes or so to absorb the flavours before serving.