Cleaning the puntarelle

The food of Rome is strong, assertive, and straight forward, never bland. The dish that to me best exemplifies la cucina Romana, surprisingly, is a salad called puntarelle. Made with a particular variety of chicory, Catalonian chicory, it is always served with a strong, piquant, garlicky, anchovy salsa, or dressing. It's never mixed with other greens, and it's never seasoned with any other dressing. This is a salad I've enjoyed countless times at restaurants, but I had never prepared it at home. Spending three months here during puntarelle season changed that.

For a lesson, I went with fellow writer and cookbook author Maureen Fant to the market in the Testaccio neighborhood, considered by locals to be the best food market in the city. Among Maureen's books are "Williams-Sonoma Rome," a collection of traditional recipes, and "Trattorias of Rome, Florence, and Venice." She has been living in Rome for almost 30 years and seems to know everything about the local specialties, including how food is grown or produced, the best places to buy it, and of course how to prepare it yourself. She often leads groups on culinary tours of the city, but I was lucky enough to have Maureen all to myself.

Cleaned puntarelle

Puntarelle, she tells me, grows in short full stalks with dark green leaves and white stems. Once the green leaves are trimmed, the stems are pared down into long thin strands that are crisp and crunchy with a slightly bitter taste, something akin to Belgian endive. Catalonian chicory may be available elsewhere -- even in other parts of Italy—but puntarelle salad is unique to Rome. We found bags of puntarelle already trimmed and ready to eat (here, too, people want foods that are partially prepared), although Maureen's preference is to do the trimming by hand with a small sharp knife, the way her Rome-born husband Franco does it.

The ingredients for the dressing are good quality anchovies, either oil-packed or salted, fresh garlic, white wine vinegar, and extra-virgin olive oil. Maureen explains that this salsa is one of only a few dressings in Italy made separately and poured over the salad. The usual practice is to create the dressing right on top of the greens.

As for the anchovies, jars of oil-packed are by far the most convenient and easiest to use; salted anchovies, available from specialty markets, require some work. They're usually bigger, meatier, more flavorful, and therefore more desirable than the oil-packed. To prepare the dressing, the anchovies and garlic are chopped or mashed together, then mixed with the vinegar and oil.

Puntarelle con la salsa
(Chicory salad with anchovy dressing)

Serves 4

Romans generally allow about 1/4 pound of puntarelle per person. I have found that one large head of trimmed curly endive makes a generous salad. A mortar and pestle is traditional to mash the anchovies with the garlic, but you can also use a knife or a mini food processor.

1 head (about 1 pound) curly endive

3 whole salted anchovies or 6 anchovy fillets packed in oil

3/4 cup white wine vinegar

1 clove garlic

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/3 cup olive oil

1. Trim the curly endive. Cut away and discard the outer stems with darker green leaves, keeping the stalks with light green or yellow leaves. Separate the stalks and cut them in half or thirds or bite - size pieces. Place them in a large bowl of cold water and let them stand for about 30 minutes. Drain and dry in a salad spinner, and transfer to a serving bowl. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

2. Meanwhile, if using salted anchovies, gently scrape off the salt with a sharp paring knife. Slit the belly and cut the fillets from the bones. Remove the backbone. It's OK to leave the skin on.

3. Pour 1/4 cup of the vinegar into a bowl. Swish the anchovies in the vinegar. Discard the vinegar and pour another 1/4 cup into the bowl. Swish the anchovies again in the clean vinegar. Dry them on paper towels. If using anchovies in oil, take them from the jar and drain them on paper towels.

4. Cut the garlic in several pieces and combine with the anchovies in a mortar, a mini food processor, or on a cutting board. Grind or chop the anchovies and garlic to make a paste. Transfer the remaining mixture to a bowl. Whisk in the remaining 1/4 cup white wine vinegar, salt, and pepper, then the oil in a thin stream.

5. Toss the endive with the dressing. Adapted from Maureen Fant.