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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.
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.