Liven up your February fare with a little unexpected Italian flair, courtesy of these two exotic members of the chicory family, says Simon Hopkinson.

It would have been about 20 years ago that I was first given to eat the curious agretti (sometimes called barba di frate—monk’s beard—in other regions of Italy) by the legendary Italian cook Franco Taruschio, when he and his wife, Ann, had owned The Walnut Tree near Abergavenny, since 1963. ‘Try this, old cock.’ (I should promptly reveal that this was only one of several endear- ing British diminutives Franco gathered over the years; ‘Tosser’, was another, so you get the drift.) And so, as ever, I did as I was told.

What was placed upon the table appeared as a mass of deep green, clearly vegetable (thin strands of samphire came to mind) and richly glossed with olive oil. And then I tasted it. Well, the tentative samphire analogy was out the window for a start (never been quite convinced of its merits, anyway), as here was something quite unlike anything I had eaten before.

I know this may sound queer, eating-wise, but my initial thought was that here was something ‘a bit difficult’. Very much not a scary challenge—such as one’s first oyster, say—but more the school of an introduction to algebra: ‘I feel very interested here, Sir, but haven’t quite grasped it yet.’ That kind of difficulty.

However, once I had scraped the plate clean, I just knew I was a convert to this juicy, mildly astringent grassy green import from Franco’s homeland. I had certainly never seen it offered in London before then (about 1994), even in enterprising greengrocers or some of the emerging new-wave Italian restaurants. But then it was work enough convincing Bibendum customers, at the time, to try a serving of ‘difficult’ braised chicory. Heigh-ho.

And the chicory family, let’s face it, has always taken some time to get used to, palate-wise. When I was 16, a certain Chef Champeau almost force-fed this apprentice three different variations over a staff lunch. Yet only a few years later, during a seminal week in Paris, I was wolfing down several salade frisée aux lardons with the best of them.

And then, towards the close of the 1970s, we began to see the arrival of radicchio in Britain. Almost stealth-like, these tight little scarlet-leafed strangers (both cabbage-like and lettuce-like at one and the same time) began to invade the smart salad bowl—so swiftly, in fact, that our simple and lovely floppy lettuce had to run for cover. And, sadly, has never quite recovered since.
The most recent Italian visitor to test the astringency of our native gourmet-salad palate, however, is the one called puntarella. Most famously associated with the Roman table (I was first introduced to it in the Campo di Fiore market), this particular offspring is surely the Quater-mass of the chicory family: long, vivid-green tendrils emerging from a tightly knit core that, with a little imagination, almost resembles a pale-green, 10-fingered gnarled fist. So, there you have it.

To prepare food with flair in February can often elude even the most inventive of cooks, so how convenient to have the exit of the puntarella season so neatly coinciding with the entry of early agretti. And, if that isn’t enough, each of them welcomes the anchovy—almost as a gift, if you will.
Simon Hopkinson is the founding chef and co-proprietor of Bibendum restaurant, London

Puntarella is a favourite of the Roman table—try it for yourself.

Puntarella is a favourite of the Roman table—try it for yourself.

Puntarella with anchovy dressing (serves 2)

Ingredients
1 puntarella, trimmed as instructed below

For the dressing
1 small egg yolk
1–2tspn lemon juice
Half a clove garlic, crushed
4–5 anchovy fillets, or to taste, chopped
5–6tbspn finest olive oil
A few drops Tabasco sauce
2tbspn hot water

Method
Remove all outer tendrils from the puntarella, cutting them away from the base, until only the paler, tight-fingered heart is revealed. Be ruthless with this, but don’t discard the tendrils; wash, drain and dry them, then store in a plastic bag in the fridge and include them, cut into short lengths, in a mildly flavoured lamb’s lettuce (mâche) salad, say, for another day.

Taking the heart, further trim the base of the puntarella so that the ‘fingers’ may be easily snapped off; think removing the florets from a cauliflower. Plunge these into a bowl of heavily iced water and leave for at least one hour, so that they will become crisp and crunchy to the tooth; if time permits, simply cover with very cold water and place in the fridge for as much as 3–4 hours, or even overnight, in a lidded, Tupperware box. Note: the larger ‘fingers’ may be sliced in half lengthways, for ease of eating.

The best way to make the dressing is in a small food processor: simply place all the ingredients in the goblet and process until very smooth. Failing that, whisk together in a bowl (in a similar way to making mayonnaise, although the anchovies will need a very fine chop) until well blended and smooth. Decant into a sauce boat or pretty bowl.

To serve, drain the punta-rella, dry it in a tea towel and arrange in a shallow dish. Take both dressing and puntarella to table and eat using your own fingers, dipping with gusto.

 

Agretti with anchovies, capers and shallots (serves 2)

Ingredients
Juice of half a lemon
Freshly ground black pepper
4tbspn finest olive oil
1 small shallot, chopped
Scant tbspn large capers, squeezed of most of their juices
1 bunch of agretti
6–8 anchovy fillets, depending on size

Method
First, make the dressing. Squeeze the lemon juice into a roomy bowl and add plenty of pepper. Whisk the juice while slowly adding the olive oil until loosely emulsified. Stir in the shallots and capers and put to one side.

Now, thoroughly wash all attendant soil from the roots of the agretti, then cut them off with a sharp knife. Remove only the tender strands of the plant with the fingers and, once again, thoroughly rinse in cold water and drain.

Bring a large pot of salted water to the boil, then plunge in the agretti. Fast-boil for a couple of minutes at the very most until tender (fish out a strand and eat it to check), then drain well in a colander for a minute or two. While still warm, tip into the bowl containing the dressing and quickly mix together; hands, here, are best.

Divide between two plates and lay the anchovies over it, including a little of their oil, if liked.