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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.
Today: Chef Nick Anderer of New York City's Maialino shows us how to tackle winter's most alien-looking vegetable.
The first step in attacking a seemingly mysterious ingredient is knowing what the hell it is and how to find it. The word puntarelle does not actually refer to a type of vegetable; it specifically refers to a part of a vegetable, namely the inner stalks of Catalonian chicory, a plant whose outer elongated leaves are extremely bitter and almost inedible in their purest raw form. Although uncommon in the U.S., many domestic farmers are beginning to grow this chicory for chefs -- and I can only imagine its niche popularity stems from the allure of its classic Roman preparation, Puntarelle in Salsa di Alici, a salad made from curly, crunchy strips of these chicory hearts dressed with anchovy and vinegar.
Here’s how the puntarelle are prepared.
1. Prepare a large ice bath. Strip the dark outer leaves to reveal the pale green, celery-like core. (Save those outer leaves for a braise or stir fry -- they go nicely with a robust tomato sauce, spiked with olives and capers.)
2. Break the core into its individual hollow stalks, either by hand or with a paring knife. As you approach the core, a paring knife will be necessary as the clusters become more compact.
3. Slice each stalk lengthwise in half and begin cutting each of these halves into lengthwise strips. Note that there is no easy or fast way to accomplish this. You can lay flat on a cutting board and attempt to julienne them with a large chef’s knife, or you can hold in your hand with a paring knife and peel off strips one at a time. (In the markets of Campo de Fiori in Rome, you will often see vendors using a flat wire-cutter, similar to a pasta chitara, through which they pass the stalks to make these lengthwise strips. Although it may be a worthwhile venture to seek out a source for this mysterious contraption, any household Roman cook will tell you that the painstaking process of hand-slicing is an integral part of the puntarelle experience and in fact gives you greater appreciation for the final product. I tend to agree.)
4. Transfer your beautiful strips of puntarelle into the ice bath, making sure they have plenty of room to coexist, submerged in the icy water. It will take roughly 45 minutes to 1 hour for them to fully curl and become the perfect crunchy vehicle for the anchovy dressing.
Now, to make the famous Roman salad:
• In a large mixing bowl, add a drizzle (2 to 3 tablespoons) of very good, fruity extra-virgin olive oil. To this small puddle of oil add about a tablespoon of chopped anchovies. (We use Scalia anchovies, pre-salted anchovy filets packed in sunflower oil.)
• Stir this mixture around to coat the bottom of the bowl and add 2 small handfuls of drained, curly puntarelle. Toss thoroughly by hand so that every piece is coated evenly with oil and chopped anchovy bits. Add a little pinch of salt to taste -- believe it or not, the vegetable needs some salt in addition to the anchovies.
• Right before serving, toss with a light drizzle (1 tablespoon) of red wine vinegar and serve immediately.
What are your favorite ways to eat puntarelle? Let us know in the comments!