False friends, the trouble with translating and two cicoria recipes

Beware of false friends. And no, I don’t mean the kind that are nice to your face but are mean behind your back. Though, you should probably watch out for those too. What I mean are false cognates, or, less technically speaking, words in two languages that look or sound similar but differ in meaning.

A case in point to illustrate my occasional trepidation in lingustic matters. In my second year of university, I told my Spanish teacher that I was too embarazada to speak in front of the class on the given topic. Her reaction, ¿Verdad? ¡Felicitaciones! (‘Really? Congratulations!’). She then explained that I had just told her that I was pregnant, as opposed to ’embarrassed’, in her native tongue. If wanting to express the latter, I needed to say tengo verguenza instead.

A year later, there was a visit from some extended family members from Calabria. One evening after dinner, the subject of mushroom picking came up. I mentioned that salt and peppercorns could be used as preservativi for the saffron milk caps we loved foraging for near the Blue Mountains. My cousins immediately began chuckling. The elder of the two, who spoke good English, then explained that, in Italian, preservativo means condom. Since then, I’ve been careful to call anything with preserving properties a conservante. I’ve also learnt to be on guard whenever encountering words in English and my two main foreign languages, Italian and French, that appear to be similar.

Which brings me to the subject of translating Italian food words and more specifically, the dizzying variety of bitter greens Italians call cicoria. Is it right to translate all these as ‘chicory’? I certainly had doubts when I posted recently on Instagram about a lunch I prepared with my friend Sonia featuring this plant. You see, the Italians refer to two wild plants as cicoria, when, in fact, one of them, strictly speaking, tarassaco (Taraxacum officinale) or dandelion does not actually belong to the Cichorium Intybus branch of the Asteraceae family. Then there are the two cultivated varieties of cicoria catalogna (‘Catalonian chicory’) that grace the stands of my local market in the colder months of the year. One of those, cicoria asparago (‘Asparagus chicory’), hides a delicious little secret underneath its outer, serrated, dark green leaves – tender, spear-like shoots that go by the name of puntarelle, meaning ‘little tips’. As it turns out, these are a species of Cichorium Intybus. To me, however, ‘chicory’, as a term, simply does not convey all the nuances of this plant’s place in Italian food culture. The original Italian language terms will therefore be used for all of the above hereafter.

Fave e cicoria

Linguistic matters aside, I’ve been using this time of year, the passage from winter to spring, to prep, cook and eat cicoria, in its many forms, a lot. An impulse buy of baby shoots of wild cicoria from the market one recent morning prompted me to do something with the dried broad beans that had been languishing in my pantry for several months. I finally tried my hand at making fave e cicoria, a dish I discovered while holidaying in Puglia over seven years ago. Consisting of a broad bean puree topped or accompanied alongside some twice-cooked cicoria (wild or cultivated), it’s become one of my favourite dishes to make for myself when I’m working from home and in need of a satisfying meal.

Ingredients (serves 4 as a starter or primo)

  • 400 g dried (peeled) broad beans
  • 2 bay leaves
  • salt, to taste
  • 1 kg cicoria catalogna (or a large bunch of wild cicoria leaves)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • a clove of garlic, peeled

Method

Place broad beans and bay leaves in a large saucepan and bring to boil. Skim any white foam which rises to the surface. Lower heat, cover and simmer broad beans for about an hour or until tender and easily collapse into a puree-like mush. Season with salt. Discard bays leaves, remove from heat and reserve half a litre of cooking liquid. Pass the cooked broad beans through a food mill until obtaining a smooth puree. Place pureed beans back in saucepan and add just enough remaining cooking liquid to the saucepan for a thick, soup-like consistency. Taste for salt and simmer on very low heat until ready to serve.

Wash the cicoria in several changes of water, discarding any wilted or bruised leaves. If using cultivated a large cicoria catalogna, trim away any thick, woody stalks. Pat dry, and, once again, if using cultivated cicoria catalogna , cut its long, serrated leaves into more manageable lengths (about 10-15cm). Place in a large saucepan with water no more than an inch deep. Cover and cook on low to medium heat until the leaves inside have collapsed and are tender (about 5 to 10 minutes).

Drain the cicoria in a pasta colander, place a plate and heavy object on top (I like to use my marble mortar) so as much water is eliminated as possible. In a saute pan, heat some olive oil. Allow garlic to simmer gently. Raise heat and add the drained cicoria and a pinch of salt. Stir for 2-3 minutes or until the leaves of the cicoria are evenly coated in olive oil. Turn off heat.

Serve your cicoria either alongside or on top of a generous serving of broad bean puree. Ideally, you’ll also have plenty of hard-crusted Altamura bread on hand for mopping up his humble yet flavourful mainstay of Pugliese cookery.

Insalata di puntarelle

The other cicoria-based work-from-home lunch I’ve been making lately includes the above-mentioned shoots or puntarelle inside a cicoria asparago. I must admit,  learning to cut the shoots into the requisite fine strips for this typically Roman salad has taken a fair bit of practice. Basically, there is no easy or quick way to do this, as Maialino chef Nick Anderer says in this instructive article on Food52. I’ve trialled the three different methods he details numerous times now. I even bought the flat wire-cutter or tagliapuntarelle Roman market vendors often use for facilitating this process. In the end, holding a shoot in my hand and peeling off fine strips with a paring knife, what most Roman home cooks (see this video for a closer look) do, was long and painstaking, but nevertheless, the most practical for me. Hence, I’ve opted to describe that method in the recipe below. The final product – crisp, pleasingly bitter curls dressed in a punchy anchovy, garlic, vinegar and olive oil condiment – rest assured, more than makes up for the hard prep work.

Ingredients (serves 4 as an appetiser or antipasto)

  • 1 head of cicoria asparago
  • 2 large, salt-packed anchovies
  • 1 clove garlic
  • 5 mL (1 tsp) red wine vinegar (or freshly squeezed lemon juice)
  • 40-50 mL extra virgin olive oil
  • salt, to taste

Method

Wash the cicoria in several changes of water. Remove all the outer, long leaves and set aside for cooking. Separate the tube-like shoots underneath, removing any dark green leaves that may be growing on them. Remove the tough, woody lower part of the shoots. Cut the shoots in half lengthways and then each half into fine strips about 3mm wide (watch this video for the typical hand-slicing method used by Roman home cooks). Rinse strips under cold water, then transfer to an ice bath. Soak strips for 45 minutes to an hour, or until the strips begin to curl. Once curled, drain and dry thoroughly.

Meanwhile, soak anchovies in a bowl filled with cold water for about 20 minutes. Remove and drain on a plate lined with paper towels. Starting from the tail, split the anchovies into two and remove their spine. You now have 4 fillets.

Peel the garlic, cut it in half and, if present, remove the green shoot inside. Pound the garlic with a mortar and pestle, then add the anchovy fillets and grind till obtaining a paste. Transfer paste to a large mixing bowl and stir in the lemon juice. Whisk the paste vigorously while adding the olive oil in a slow and steady stream to obtain an perfectly emulsified dressing. Taste for salt (you probably won’t need much due to the salt used to preserve the anchovies). Add the curled puntarelle strips to the bowl and toss to coat evenly. Serve immediately.

N.B. If you’re unable to get your hands on the types of chicory required in the above recipes you may want to try making fave e cicoria dish with chard (silverbeet) or English spinach. These won’t be as bitter though. As for replacing the cicoria asparago in the puntarelle salad, Rachel Roddy, in her book Five Quarters: Recipes and Notes from a Kitchen in Rome, recommends replacing these with frisée or curly endive, which belongs to the Cichorium genus too. In this Food52 article, Gabrielle Hamilton suggests another endive, witlof or Belgian endive, which has a remarkably similar bitter flavour and crunchy texture. 

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