Spiny, sprawling, a little sinister – this is puntarella. You may have seen it before, though likely not in its rawest state, and have probably encountered a salad of its dandelion or chicory cousins at some point in your personal veg history.
I was introduced 5 years ago, just before going for my job interview at Quince. To prepare, I read over a sample menu and looked up any unfamiliar terms – items like agnolotti dal plin, sformato of wild nettles, and insalata di puntarella. When Google failed to yield many English results and the Food Lover's Companion didn't fill in the blanks, I began to realize this was a pretty serious restaurant. An Italian dictionary informed me that agnolotti means "priest's caps," Lonely Planet Florence clumsily translated sformato di patate e ricotta as "oven cooked potato and white cheese," and a click-through of various sites gave me the impression that puntarella was an unruly chicory somehow transformed into a pale tangle of a salad, typically enjoyed by Romans in the springtime. Only after landing the job, then visiting Italy a few years later did I understand how much more specific and delicate and wonderful each of these dishes are. It'd be a nicer world if everyone spent time working in a serious restaurant before strolling through Trastevere, but neither life experience is necessary to enjoy a plate of puntarella. Here's how to turn that creeping beastie above into a simple salad.
To start, the venerable Elizabeth Schneider does some demystifying in Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini: The Essential Reference, explaining that puntarelle (referring to multiple shoots rather than a single head) are one of the Dandelion Chicories, and
"Because the heads [outwardly] resemble dandelion, you must rudely spread the slim, pale-stalked leaves to check for the presence of the hidden pointlets. What you should see is a mass of chubby, twisted, hollow shoots, each topped with leafy twirls; the whole may range from the size of an apple to a small cauliflower."
At the size of a deflated basketball, this particular specimen – like many of the edible treasures I score from Tierra Vegetables' stand at the Ferry Building on Saturdays – is freakishly large. Which saved me, thankfully, from any rude spreading: the dandeliony outer leaves were already splayed like spider legs, so I knew I was getting more than a bundle of greens.
At home, I removed the leaves, snapped each conical (ES deems them "crayfish-shaped") shoot from the base, and gave them all a good washing. I halved the spears to check for dirt before slicing them as thinly as possible (3mm or so) along their length and tossing the tangles into a bowl of ice water.
(If I were an Italian market vendor, I would have forced the shoots lengthwise through a gridded slicing screen over a water bucket, letting the resulting curls pile in.) With my mother in mind – about now's when she would breeze through the kitchen to say "So much chopping. I would have stopped loooong ago" – I admit that reducing the pile of stalks to a lacy nest will take a while, but drink some Anchor Steam goat beer or listen to Radiolab or lure someone else into the kitchen with you to pass the time. Do all of the above. While the slices are soaking, mix up a vinaigrette of olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, chili flakes, and bits of anchovy. Of course, you're allowed to omit any ingredient that you fear will unsettle the humours (and implored to view Isabella Rossellini's ode to the anchovy here), but I find each element necessary and the end result – bitter, salty, spicy, pungent, cool, tangy – pleasantly and perfectly balanced.