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The markets stalls are neatly stacked with artichokes of all varieties and sizes during this time of the year in Italy. People gather around two and three deep to make their purchases and the vendors scrabble to keep up with the demand as people clamor to get their attention. Artichokes are in season – a vegetable with a lot of versatility.
A fresh artichoke salad with ribbons of parmesan cheese over the top and a lemon and olive oil dressing, a creamy soup, marinated in olive oil – Carciofi o carciofini sott’olio, boiled and served with a vinaigrette, Carciofi alla Giudia, Stuffed artichokes, Tagliata con carciofi – sautéed and spread over grilled meat or fish, are prepared at home and in restaurants all over Italy.
Artichokes take a little effort to clean, but once you know how to do it, it goes pretty fast and the effort is well worth the time. If you are lucky and live in Italy, you can find them in some markets already cleaned. When I find them this way, I buy enough to prepare meals for the week and get our fill of them as long as the season lasts. They can be bought frozen, marinated, or in cans, but they don’t compare to fresh artichokes.
Spaghetti con carciofi freschi or Fettuccine with fresh artichokes is a fast and easy dish to make. The artichokes have a delicate flavor and just using fresh tomatoes and a little wine results in a flavorful sauce that compliments the pasta. If you are willing to make fresh pasta, you will be rewarded with a wonderful dish you will prepare again and again.
Spaghetti con carciofi freschi
Prep Time: 30 minutes for fresh artichokes
Cook Time: 12-15 minutes
Yield: 4 Servings
1 lb. spaghetti
16 small artichokes, cleaned and sliced
2 plum tomatoes, chopped or 10 cherry tomatoes cut in half
6 tablespoons olive oil
2 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
1/2 cup white wine
1 pepperoncino, broken in half
1/2 lemon plus juice
Salt & freshly ground pepper to taste
Chopped parsley, as garnish
Clean the artichokes by cutting the top off about 1/4” of the way down. Remove the outer leaves by pulling them down and snapping them off until you reach the white/yellow leaves. Remove the stem and cut around the bottom to remove any dark, hard or stringy part. Cut the choke in half and clean out the hay with a melon ball scoop or a small spoon. Cut the halves lengthwise into 1/8” thick slivers.
In a frying pan, add the olive oil, garlic, pepperoncino and sauté, add the artichokes for about 5 minutes. Add the wine and the chopped tomatoes or cherry tomatoes and cook for a few minutes longer until the artichokes are slightly soft. Salt and pepper to taste.
Cook the speghetti or fettuccini and add it to the pan with the artichokes and finish the cooking adding a little pasta water as needed. Garnish the pasta with freshly chopped parsley.
Note: You can serve this dish with a little Parmesan cheese or a side dish of red pepper flakes. I prefer a little heat and no cheese, as I think the cheese overwhelms the flavor of the artichokes.
Roman Jewish artichokes are a sentries old gastronomic tradition. One of Rome’s treasured dishes, they are sometimes called Carciofi Romani. Except for the cleaning of the artichokes it is relatively easy dish to make. If you are looking for a very impressive delicacy you couldn’t ask for a more beautiful presentation.
Baby artichokes are best and require the least cleaning. Once fried they are golden in color and crunchy with a soft center. Squeeze a wedge of lemon over the top and they have lovely nutty flavor.
Carciofi alla Giudia
Prep. Time: 15 minutes
Cook Time: 3 minutes per choke in boiling water, 3 minute frying time
Yield: 12-2 per person if used in antipasti
12 small artichokes
Canola or olive oil for frying
Kosher or sea salt
2 lemons, in quarters
Cleaning the Artichokes
Cut the stems off and the tops 1/4 of the way down of all the artichokes. Remove the leaves down to the white leaves. The leaves are removed by pulling them back and snapping them off. It is not necessary to remove the hay in the middle, if the artichokes are very small, but if using medium size artichokes you must remove it with a small spoon, or a melon baller. Place them in a bowl of water with lemon juice to keep them from turning brown.
In a pan of salted boiling water (you can use table salt), boil the artichokes for about 3 minutes. Remove them from the pan and turn them upside down on paper towels to drain. They should be completely dry before frying, or the oil will splatter. Once dried turn the artichokes over and gently open them up and loosen the leaves so they look like flowers.
Heat the oil and fry each artichoke upside down in the oil. This will set the leaves open. Turn them and fry them on the bottom side. The artichokes are already blanched and don’t need a long frying time, usually 3-5 minutes. Look for the color when frying; they should not be brown or green, but golden.
Remove them to a rack or paper towels to drain and immediately sprinkle them with a coarse grain sea salt. When biting into them you will sporadically taste the salt. Serve them on a large serving platter with quarter lemons, which should be squeezed over the top.
Artichokes are served in Italy in antipasti preserved in olive oil. The baby artichokes are most often used and are much easier to prepare. However, even though they are grown in California they don’t seem to be found in the markets in large quantities and are only available in small pre-packed packages. In Italy they are available in markets in large quantities and some markets are selling them already cleaned. Preserving them is a great way to have them on hand for a variety of cooking uses. I tossed them with pasta, as a vegetable side dish, in antispasti, as a topping on pizza, with fresh bread dipped in the oil and served with a few artichokes or sautéed, sliced over meat or fish. You can flavor them with your favorite herbs and make them your own special recipe.
A little about Artichokes
The edible portion of the artichoke is basically a flower bud with tough, petal-shaped leaves, and an inedible, flower center. When selecting artichokes, be sure they are tightly packed and are not dried out. It is best if you can buy them with the stems still intact as often found in Italy, but markets in the US tend to cut them off.
There are many varieties of artichokes but the ones most often found in markets are as follows:
Baby anzio is a relative of the romanesco artichoke of the Lazio region of Italy – purple and can be eaten whole
Big heart– green, three to five inches in diameter, are excellent for stuffing
Classic green globe, three to five inches in diameter, similar in shape and flavor to the French camus de bretagne, a summer artichoke grown in Brittany.
Siena, oblong shaped and red in color, four inches in diameter, central Italy, tender and can be eaten raw
The petite mercury, red-violet hue, rounded top, is sweeter than many other artichokes, about three and a half inches in diameter. Similar to baby anzio, comes from the Italian romanesco.
Omaha, dense and rotund artichoke, up to six inches wide, sharply tapered red-and-green leaves and less bitter than many artichoke varieties.
Fissile, two-inch-wide, fruity flavor, deep wine color, Bred from the violetta de provence, native to southern France, tender stalk that can be quickly steamed and eaten.
Chianti, a classically shaped, four-inch-wide, green with a touch of maroon on the leaves, comes from the Italian romanesco.
King, blocky and vividly colored has distinctive green spots at the tips of its leaves, four inches in diameter, bred from romanesco varieties mixed with other Italian artichoke strains.
Carciofi o carciofini sott’ olio
Preserved artichokes in olive oil
The small artichokes or baby artichokes (carciofini) are best for carciofi sott’olio. If they can’t be found then use globe artichokes and cut them into quarters.
Baby or medium size artichokes
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
1 Lemon plus juice, cut in half or quarters, depending on the number of artichokes
2 sprigs fresh basil
1-2 tablespoons honey, optional
Fresh or flaked peperoncini to taste, optional
2 whole cloves garlic, optional
2 tablespoons flour
Other things needed
1 large glass-canning jar
Trim away the small bottom and tough outer leaves. Cut the tops of the artichokes about 1/4” down or to the tender part. Remove all the leaves down to the white leaves, keeping about 2 inches of stems. Cut the artichokes in half or quarters. Clean out the hay in the middle. Drop them into a bowl of water with lemon juice and the lemon halves. This will keep them from discoloring.
In a large pan, bring water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of flour in a separate bowl with water until it is liquid paste. Put this mixture in the boiling water. This will prevent discoloring and keep the artichokes a nice light green color.
Put the cleaned artichokes into the boiling water and cook until they just start to get slightly soft about 5-7 minutes depending on the size. Prick them with a knife – they should still be slightly hard. Remove them and place them on paper towels to drain.
When they have cooled, place them in a large glass-canning container. Add the basil, honey, pepperoncini and/or any other herbs, or garlic). Fill the container with extra virgin olive oil. If stored in a cool place they will last for about 2 months.
They can be served in an antipasti, or as side vegetable dish. Toss them in a salad, pasta or on a pizza. Slice them over grilled meat or fish. If you plan to use them in food preparation, don’t add the honey. The ingredients above are an example of what can be added, but don’t exclude herbs you like.
Fresh artichokes start showing up in the market usually in May and in September. From September through Christmas I prepare many different artichoke dishes, but stuffing them is one of my favorite preparations.
Prep Time: 30 minutes
Cook Time: 1 hour
Yield: 6 servings
6 large globe artichokes
1 lemon, cut in half
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 stick pepperoni, half chopped finely, the other half in thick slices
5 cups loosely packed white bread crumbs, chopped very fine
4 tablespoons flat leaf Italian parsley
3 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 cup Parmesan cheese, grated
1 large egg
1/2 cup pine nuts
Salt and ground pepper to taste
Cut the pointed tops of the artichokes with a scissor and rub the entirely with the lemon. This prevents the leaves from turning brown. Remove the smaller lower leaves, and cut the bottom stem so the artichokes are flat.
Combine the breadcrumbs, finely chopped pepperoni, garlic, grated cheese, parsley, pine nuts and salt and pepper together. Taste the mixture to make sure you have enough salt. Add the egg and some olive oil to the mixture and mix until the mixture holds together in you hand when you squeeze it.
Stuff between each leave. If you chose to just stuff the middle, you must clean out the leaves and hay in the middle of the choke and fill the cavity. In our family we always stuff each leave.
Place them in a very large pan of water reaching up to just below the first set of leaves. Add the chunks of pepperoni, salt and pepper.
They will take at least 45 minutes to 1 hour cooking time on medium heat. They are done when you can easily pull a leaf out of the coke. Be sure they are completely cooked, as the bottom of the leaves will be hard if undercooked.