How to navigate the veg shortage
One day last winter, my then 4-year-old son came home from school and announced he didn’t like ca-coffee. Now I know they eat good and varied meals at his school – but coffee? Did he mean something coffee-flavoured? The next day I asked his teacher, who is wary of my still-lopsided Italian, so braced herself for misunderstanding. Ca-coffee? It took us a minute. Carciofi, she said, almost thwacking my arm with joy that we had understood each other – artichokes! “They gave them artichokes?” I meant it as a statement, but it came out as a question. “Yes,” she said, “we are in Rome.” It turns out they also give the kids bieta, chard, and
cicoria, chicory. “And do they eat it?” I asked. “Of course not,” she laughed, “but we give it to them anyway.”
This is no scheme or planned edible education, just lunch at an ordinary school where, despite cutbacks and the cooks’ work being eroded by food that is brought in, the kids are given bitter leaves and ca-coffee. They may moan, refuse or spit it out, but the seeds are sown and – just maybe – a love of artichokes and chicory begins.
Chicory grows wild around Rome, its tufts of dark green, dandelionlike leaves thriving in fields, laybys and overgrown corners. You find it sprouting hopefully between cracks in the pavement and cobblestones, fighting its way past fag butts to reach for the sky. Wild means free, which historically made chicory an important and incredibly popular vegetable. It still is. You can gather or buy wild chicory, but also cultivated varieties. Both are unruly: like certain types of hair, they will not be tamed, poking out of crates and over the edge of market stalls. Stall-holders and customers alike stuff great handfuls of it in bags, almost punching it down. At home, chicory is trimmed, parboiled and then
ripassata, repassed, in the pan with olive and garlic until it is a glistening tangle. The cooking takes away some of the bitterness, but only some; cicoria is robust, bitter, and a side dish you find in every single Roman trattoria, a good follow-on for the cheese-rich pastas or slow-cooked meat.
Near the unruly mounds of sawedged chicory, is another beloved Roman variety called puntarelle, also known as cicoria di catalogna or cicoria asparago. Its outer leaves are like cicoria, but inside the head is made up of a cluster of curious hollow shoots. These shoots need trimming, cutting into thin strips with a knife or clever stringed cutter, then crisping in iced water until they curl like Shirley Temple’s hair. Unlike cicoria, puntarelle has just a touch of bitterness. It is usually served with a dressing of anchovy, lemon and garlic. When you are in charge, you can leave out the anchovy and, in the absence of puntarelle, the dressing works with frisee, radicchio or the familiar chicory or endive. Puntarelle is a delight of a salad, inherently crisp and alive.
This week’s second salad is Neapolitan and reinforcing, apparently. There are as many recipes and strongly held opinions as there are cooks for this recipe for insalata di rinforzo, traditionally eaten on Christmas Eve but just as nice in February. I follow food writer Angela Frenda’s suggestions, cooking the cauliflower till tender, but still with bite. Traditionally, the red peppers used are those preserved under vinegar,
papaccelle. I cook strips of pepper in hot oil, then finish them with vinegar, which also provides a dressing. Capers, anchovies, gherkins and olives are a bossy, rowdy lot – how many you add is up to you. I like this salad with poached salt cod, or hard-boiled eggs.
The third of today’s trio is an absolute favourite, insalata di finocchio, arance e cipolla. It is well and truly orange time, the trees still full of bitter ones and blood oranges, tarocchi arriving from Sicily, a perfect mix of sharp and sweet, their blushing skin no guarantee of colour inside – they range from pink-tinted to absolutely bloody. Just as delicious are navels, each one pregnant with baby orange. Both varieties work well for this quintessential Sicilian salad of orange and fennel. Today’s version includes red onion. I use my mother-in-law’s trick of soaking the onions in a mixture of water and vinegar which eliminates the harshness and possibility of heartburn. Trim the fennel vigorously, saving tougher bits for soup and
only using the crisp, tender heart for the salad.
All three salads stand alone, but brought together they are a top trio: crisp, reinforcing and bright, a rush of pleasure in cardigan season, and a frisky suggestion of the season to come. Just don’t forget the bread, cheese and ca-coffee for after.
Puntarelle with olive oil, anchovy, lemon and garlic
Serves 4 1 head of puntarelle, or frisee 1 garlic clove 3-6 anchovies, under salt or oil 100ml extra virgin olive oil 50ml lemon juice 1
Strip the outer leaves from the puntarelle, then break it into the individual shoots. Trim away the tough base of each shoot and then use a sharp knife or puntarelle cutter to slice each shoot into thin strips. Put the strips in iced water for an hour. If you are using frisee, cut away the base and tear into small pieces.
2 Make the dressing by pounding the garlic and anchovies to a paste with a pestle and mortar, then add the olive oil and lemon juice, tasting as you go, until you have a thick dressing. Alternatively, use a food processor or immersion blender to pulse the ingredients together.
3 Drain, then thoroughly dry the puntarelle, put it in a large bowl, dress with 6 tbsp of dressing, toss and serve. Keep leftover dressing in a jar with a lid in the fridge for up to a week.
Cauliflower, red pepper, caper, olive and anchovy salad
Serves 4 1 medium cauliflower 1 large red pepper 5 tbsp extra virgin olive oil 3 tbsp red wine vinegar 100g olives 50g capers, ideally under salt 50g anchovies, drained 60g pickled gherkins, chopped
1 Trim the cauliflower and break into small florets, then boil in well salted water for 7-9 minutes or until the florets are cooked but still firm. Drain and leave to cool.
2 Trim the red pepper and cut into strips. In a frying pan, warm the olive oil and fry the pepper until the strips are tender, add the red wine to the pan and allow everything to sizzle for a few minutes, then take off the heat.
3 Arrange the cauliflower and red pepper on a plate or in a bowl, add the olives, capers, anchovies and gherkins, pour over the warm oil and vinegar desssing from the pan, toss, taste and add more oil and vinegar if you think it needs it.
Fennel, orange and onion salad
Serves 4 1 large or 2 small bulbs of fennel 2 large oranges 1 small red onion Salt 6 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 Trim the fennel, saving the tougher outer layer and finger-like stalks for soup, and set aside the frilly fronds. Slice the trimmed bulb in half, then slice each half thinly.
2 Cut the base from the oranges so they sit flat, then pare away the skin and pith. Cut each orange in half and then again into quarters.
3 Peel, halve and finely slice the onion into crescents. If you want a milder flavour, soak the slices in a 3-to-1 mixture of water to red wine vinegar for 15 mins, then drain.
4 In a bowl, mix the orange, fennel and onion together, sprinkle with salt, pour over the oil, tear over the fennel fronds, toss again and serve.
You find it sprouting hopefuly between cracks in the pavement, fighting its way past fag butts to reach for the sky
▲ Cook’s tip The icier the water, the better the puntarelle curls, so I add several ice cubes to the bowl. Once curled, dry the puntarelle well