Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Puntarelle alla romana - Roman chicory salad

The thing I love about Italy is that, despite globalization, there is still a charmingly (and sometimes annoyingly) predominant national, regional or even local aspect to everyday life in this country.

For example, did you know that before Christmas priests still bless each and every house or apartment in their parish? And offices sometimes too. I kid you not. Yesterday, a bunch of financial analysts and traders stood around a priest crossing themselves and murmuring Hail Marys and Our Fathers while he sprinkled holy water over the market monitors and stacks of financial papers.

Hand-carved South Tyrolean wood crib figurines

Every year a girl in our office, who is famous for her recipe, makes large amounts of crema di mascarpone (mascarpone cheese, eggs and more) to eat with the office panettone and pandoro at Christmas time. Panettone is originally from Milan and is made with raisins, candied fruit and lemon zest. Pandoro (golden bread), a simple sweet yeast bread, is originally from Verona, it is star shaped and covered in confectioner's sugar to resemble snow. 

My writing this post has ignited a discussion in my office. Many of my colleagues come from towns that are often only a few kms apart and just outside Milan, yet their traditions are a total revelation to their neighbors. My colleague and friend who sits facing me, from the Northern part of Lake Maggiore, mentioned she was suprised to notice there were no camels in the bakeries on Januray 6th. Camels? January 6th is the Epiphany but in Italy it is also the day of La Befana, an old lady dressed in rags who brings good children presents and sweets (or black candy in place of the charcoal of olden days if the children were naughty) on a broomstick. This day marks the end of the holiday season in Italy. But how does a camel fit in with brooms and rags? It seems the origins of this tradition are unknown, but it definitely is linked with the arrival of the Three Wise Men at the manger. My colleague to my right is from Milan but her mother is from Lodi. It was traditional at her house to put a glass of water out on Christmas Eve and to drink a sip of it the next morning, because the water had supposedly turned holy during the night.

On the day of Santa Lucia, December 13th, in Sicily they eat cuccìa, a pudding (although there are savory versions made with chickpeas too) made with boiled wheat berries, ricotta cheese and sugar to commemorate the relief from a food shortage on the island in the 17th century. On that day Sicilians traditionally do not eat bread or pasta, although it is more a thing of the past. My mother in law made this dessert on Monday and I tasted it for the first time and enjoyed it. Then again, what don't I enjoy?

Back to the variety of Italian recipes. 

There is a vegetable, called puntarelle, that is typically Roman. Why, you must be wondering, am I writing about a recipe that lists an ingredient you probably can't get where you live? First of all, because all streets lead to Rome so you may pass through one day and decide to taste this specialty while you are sitting in a trattoria in a picturesque piazza. Secondly, because it seems many of you enjoy posts related to Italian peculiarities.

So, I was saying...puntarelle. They are basically chicory shoots, they are hollow inside and slightly bitter and crunchy. Until recently, it was hard to come across puntarelle in Milan and I used get my fill whenever I travelled to Rome, where they are sold at every street market. At my local supermarket I can now buy them already cleaned so I sometimes pick up a tray. It is a bizzarre looking vegetable and is usually eaten raw in salad with an anchovy based sauce that seems to date back to the Roman Empire.
The traditional way to prepare these puntarelle is to cut them into thin strips (in Rome they already sell them to you like this at the market) and soak them in ice water so they curl up. I cut them into larger strips and chunks without getting all elaborate and they were delicious anyway.  If you travel to Italy, or rather Rome, you must taste them!

1 or 2 cloves garlic
a few anchovies (if salted rinse them)
a splash of vinegar
pelnty of good quality olive oil

Wash and cut or shred your puntarelle. Grind the garlic and anchovies in a mortar (or use a mixer if you prefer) until you obtain a paste, then mix in some vinegar and plenty of olive oil to dilute it, obtaining a creamy sauce. Pour it over your greens and serve as a salad.

My second pestle in two months broke just the other day. My son was the first culprit, a gust of wind the second. So I just broke up the anchovies with a fork and chopped the garlic into pieces that I then removed from the emulsion once it had marinated for a while. The sauce may have lacked in creaminess but definitely not in flavor.


  1. You cannot imagine how much I love Insalata di puntarelle! And how much I miss them! The best salad I had was at a fabulous restaurant in Roma called Piperno. And I so miss everything Italian, the holidays and the rituals, the superstition and the food. When my boys were in a tiny village school north of Milan, once a year the priest would come to each class on a certain saint day (can't remember which) and bless the kids in the name of the saint who would protect them from sore throats.

  2. yum, puntarelle.... Need to go and get me some! Though, Nuts, for shame, you really should have sliced them thinner!!
    Also, Jamie, LOOOOVVVEEE Piperno. Now I also need to go back to Rome and eat there!

  3. Lebanese (christian) villages have similar traditions and last summer I was part of a procession (unplanned occurrence) to a Virgin there who is believed to have performed miracles anyway all of this is charming as can be especially if it is accompanied by delicious food vittles as well!in Lebanon this would be fixed the same way, minus the anchovies.

  4. Jamie - One day you will have to tell me about your time in Italy...I love the story of the blessing for sore throats, it would be greatly needed around here these days.
    Moomser - darn I thought I would get away with it, I even posted a link to a youtube video showing how they should be cut in honor of all you Romans! The truth is they taste exactly the same to me, but I know for you it is a "questione di onore" ;o)
    Taste of Beirut - Absolutely, it seems there is always a meal or a recipe linked to the tradition. What are puntarelle called in Lebanon?

  5. I've never tried that! I wonder if it's the kind of thing that Italians grow in their backyard? I must ask some Italian friends of mine! :D

  6. Wow, this is really cool! Funny, while was reading I was like, "did she mean caramels???" No camels!!! LOL!

    All roads do lead to roam and I can't wait until the day I arrive!

    This recipe sounds delicious 0 I am an anchovy lover!

  7. Lorraine - It is very regional here too, so I am not sure. I guess if you were from Latium and you grew chicory, then why not? But not a common thing to grow around Italy.
    DD&W - If the roads bring you over here, promise to look me up, ok? I am sure you could try this sauce with any other crunchy, not too tasty green.


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