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I must have heard about Puntarelle somewhere in one of those food magazines. Its Italian name sounded fashionable, European – a high-class lettuce made for print. In person, it doesn’t present the same demeanor. It keeps its shy heart hidden behind a thicket of loose-fitting leaves, a greenish mass that must be removed to get to the tender, delicate shoots. To make a classic Roman Puntarelle salad, these tender stalks are divided into individual stems, shaved into paper-thin, transparent shreds, and then soaked in icy water. This frigid bath makes them curl like ghostly fiddle heads. Dare I say cute?
Then comes the fishy part. Puntarelle salads are often prepared with anchovies – salty oceanic creatures that also go well in Caesar salads and other Mediterranean fares. It’s often difficult to find an alternative mention of Puntarelle that’s vegetarian friendly. I would even venture to say, it’s damn near impossible. This is the kind of thing you discover when you come home from the market high with giddy hopes… lots of hopes.
Be to her, Persephone,
All the things I might not be;
Take her head upon your knee.
She that was so proud and wild,
Flippant, arrogant and free,
She that had no need of me,
Is a little lonely child
Lost in Hell,—Persephone,
Take her head upon your knee;
Say to her, “My dear, my dear,
It is not so dreadful here.”
– Prayer to Persephone by edna st. vincent millay
So I went to my fridge, my pantry, and my salad with a Roman zeal, or maybe it was a springish zest? I put all the Italian things in, until it was brimming with an edible decadence of a Roman Holiday, which, by the way, is something we all deserve after this past winter. There’s hardly a better time for a salad than spring, but it doesn’t have to be delicate. I like spring salads that are as hardy as winter, the kinds that are essentially meals – half raw, half roasted, and bursting with diversity and color, a veritable vegetable festival, a Persephoneous riot.
Puntarelle Salad for Vegetarians
1 c. fine cornmeal for Polenta
1 ts salt
2 TB olive oil or butter
This Olivey Caesar Dressing from Sprouted Kitchen, modified (see notes below)
1 puntarelle head
4-5 baby artichokes, or 1 can of artichoke hearts
1/3 cup of olives
1/2 c shaved, hard pecorino
+ Prepare the polenta first. Bring 3 c. of water to a boil with 1 ts of salt and olive oil. Once the water is hot and rolling, slowly add cornmeal, reduce the heat to a simmer, and stir continuously until the grain absorbs all of the water ~ 15 minutes. Spray a rectangular pan with olive oil, or coat it in butter. Then, spread the polenta evenly and chill for two hours. Alternatively, you can buy pre-cooked logs at Whole Foods or Trader Joes. I make my croutons using round cookie cutters and eat the leftover bits as snacks. You can use a knife to make square croutons if you don’t like polenta snacks. To crisp the croutons, fry them in hot oil or in an oiled, skillet. If your skillet is not non-stick or properly seasoned, it will stick.
+ Make the Dressing. I love this olivey dressing from Sara & Hugh – I suggest making a big batch of this and eating it on everything with artichokes. Since this salad is supposed to be a stand-in for salty, savory anchovies, I went slim on the red wine vinegar, added more olives and also more salt. I also used this aged bourbon worcestershire sauce – for added depth.
+ Prepare the Puntarelle. Remove all of the leafy bits and save for a sautee. In the center, you’ll see clusters of tender stems, these you’ll want to separate into individuals. In Rome, the Puntarelle vendors have a special cutter to shred the stems – obviously I didn’t have one so I cut each stem’s tip off (the heads?), leaving a tubular stalk. I used a vegetable peeler to shave them and then added them to acidulated ice water (a drop of lemon juice will do) for about an hour. I serve the tips with the salad, but if they are not cut off, the stems are even harder to shave.
+ Next, prepare your artichokes. If you have access to young, purple ones, they are perfect for this – parboil them after trimming all of the unwanted edges and choke off. Sear them in olive oil and sprinkle with a bit of salt. Canned artichokes works just as well, but they are not as good. I have a lot of these around bc I am lazy and we have been unable to locate baby artichokes.
+ When you’re ready to serve, drain your Puntarelle and give it in a spin in a salad spinner to remove excess water. Dress your salad one ingredient at a time. Add a few tablespoons of dressing to a large bowl and toss in the shaved Puntarelle. Remove these and put it into another bowl, dish it out onto individual plates, or onto a large serving platter. Next comes the croutons with a tablespoon or two of dressing. I do this carefully, adding a little dressing at a time… doing so lets me control how much each ingredient gets the dressing. The artichokes are next and last. I don’t add dressing to the olives, cheese, or parsley.