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Artichokes, Roman-style: Learning to love a traditional food

Posted 25 February 2016 and filed under Food

Artichokes being prepared for carciofi alla romana. Photo by Sara White.

I had been suspicious of artichokes for a long time. As far as foods go, they’re rather bizarre and thoroughly inhospitable; between the hard, thorn-tipped outer layers and the puff of inedible cottony fluff at the centre, there’s not much about the artichoke that might convince you to turn it into a quick and easy weekday dinner.

When I was still living in Canada, I didn’t think I particularly liked artichokes. The fresh version almost never made an appearance in local grocery stores, and the jarred version, free of any thorns but swimming in an oily liquid, seemed to exist exclusively to be turned into a cheese-laden artichoke dip. In Rome, though, artichokes – carciofi in Italian – aren’t just another vegetable. They’re woven right into the culinary history and culture of the city, and they’re impossible to avoid: from mid-winter through mid-spring, carciofi take centre stage. The markets practically explode with them, mountains of heavy rounded heads in various shades of dusty purple stacked neatly on rough tables and tangled together in huge plastic crates.

Artichokes in a market in Rome, Italy. Photo by Sara White.Artichokes outside of a restaurant in Rome, Italy. Photo by Sara White.

During my first winter in Rome, seduced by the intimidatingly beautiful artichoke mountains every time I walked through the market, I decided to try my hand at preparing them from scratch. I came home one day with at least six of them, their sharp edges shredding the plastic bag they were stuffed into. Having only the vaguest idea in mind of how one goes about preparing an artichoke (and I’m still not sure why I didn’t spend a few minutes looking up recipes first), I dumped them out onto the cutting board and started delicately snipping away with a pair of kitchen shears, determined to eliminate the thorny bits without wasting too much of the edible part. Tossing the artichokes into a pot of boiling water with all the confidence of a person just about to fail, I added a glug of white wine and a handful of chopped herbs then sat back to wait.

When I fished the artichokes out of the water an hour later, the stems had gone mushy and split into fibrous strands while the outermost leaves were still inedibly hard and disconcertingly sharp. They had also taken on a strange flavour, a sort of metallic bitterness amplified by the realization that I had just ruined dinner. I forced down a few mouthfuls before a stray thorn grazed my throat; it was at that precise point when I decided that the Romans may have potentially overvalued the artichoke.

In Rome though, in winter, you cannot escape the artichoke. Carciofi pop up on menus everywhere – braised, fried, tossed into pasta, slipped into main courses – and restaurants proudly display little piles of them outside their doors. It was only a matter of time before another artichoke showed up on my plate. And the moment I tried my first carciofo alla giudia – deep-fried until golden brown and shatteringly crisp then sprinkled liberally with salt, a far cry from my own simultaneously over- and under-cooked kitchen disaster – I rethought my premature judgement of the vegetable and began to make up for lost time.

Artichokes being prepared for carciofi alla romana. Photo by Sara White.

It was carciofi alla romana – in the Roman style – that eventually made their way into my own kitchen. As delicious as deep-fried artichokes are, they are also impractical to prepare at home; any recipe involving a pot of scalding oil does not make for relaxing meal preparation. Carciofi alla romana, on the other hand, are surprisingly fast to prepare. As soon as I realized that artichokes can be bought pre-cleaned – in every market in Rome there is always at least one elderly man sitting hunched over a bucket of water with a few halved lemons floating around in it, systematically grabbing one artichoke after another and aggressively relieving it of its tough outer layers and thorns – I welcomed them back into my kitchen.

With the unpleasant part already taken care of, the dish came together quickly: a bit of garlic, parsley and mentuccia (a wild Roman mint) rubbed into the leaves, a shower of salt, then, with the artichokes standing on their heads in a deep pot, a relatively short, gentle braise in just a few centimetres of water and a bit of olive oil. When I lifted the lid off the pot half an hour later, a cloud of deeply perfumed steam rose up to meet me – steam that smelled like the most traditional Roman trattoria; like comfort food. Fork-tender, well-seasoned and just beginning to brown on the bottom, these carciofi alla romana left no doubt as to why the artichoke is so loved in this city.

Roman-style artichokes - carciofi alla romana. Photo by Sara White.

Carciofi alla Romana

Roman-style Artichokes · Feeds 4 as a starter

Recipe as taught to me by Alessandro, who learned how to make carciofi alla romana by watching his mother in the kitchen, who I imagine learned from her own mother. Like most Roman dishes, there are many subtly different versions floating around out there, depending on who you talk to.

For this recipe, you’ll need a lidded, relatively tall-sided pot that’s just large enough to fit all of the artichokes standing on their heads.


Ingredients
Instructions

If you’ve bought whole, un-cleaned artichokes, cut the lemon in half and squeeze it into a big bowl of water (this prevents the artichokes from turning dark after they’ve been cleaned). Begin preparing the artichokes by removing the tough outer leaves, first snapping them off of the artichoke with your hands and then using a small, sharp knife to cut upwards in a spiral motion to reveal the lighter layer underneath. Using the knife, strip the outer layer from the base and the stem, then cut the stem to a length that will fit, standing up, inside your pot. Place the prepared artichoke and the cut stem piece into the bowl of water. If the preparation sounds intimidating, this video does a good job of showing exactly how to cut them.

In a small bowl, mix the minced garlic, parsley, mentuccia (or regular mint), salt and pepper.

Remove an artichoke from the bowl, dry off any remaining water as thoroughly as possible, then use your hands to force open the inner layers of the artichoke, taking care not to snap off the leaves. If there is a fluffy centre, scrape it out with a spoon. Use your hands to coat the entire artichoke – both inside and outside – with a generous layer of olive oil. Using a small spoon or your hands, place a quarter of the garlic and herb mixture into the centre of the artichoke and massage it through the layers. Place the artichoke into the pot with the head facing down and the stem pointing directly up. Repeat with the remaining three artichokes.

Coat the cut stem sections with oil and add them to the pot, filling in any gaps between the artichoke heads. Drizzle any unused oil over top, and, if desired, sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Add enough water to reach about one third of the way up the artichoke’s leaves, then cover the pot tightly (you don’t want too much steam to escape) with a lid.

Cook on medium heat for 30 to 40 minutes; the liquid in the pot should be bubbling, but not boiling so furiously that it forces the garlic and herbs out of the artichokes’ centres. The artichokes are done when you can easily pierce the thick part near the stem with a fork; they may be starting to slump over slightly by this point, but they should remain intact.

To serve, scoop the artichokes onto a plate and allow them to cool until they are only slightly warm. You may wish to drizzle them with a bit of the remaining cooking liquid. Eat with a piece of crusty bread and, to turn an appetizer into a light lunch, half a ball of fresh, milky mozzarella di bufala per person.

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