Artichokes

P1060315I’ve always found that March is a transitional month at the market. There’s not much left in terms of fruit (at least if you  try to stick to local produce) and winter veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, pumpkin, leeks and turnips have passed their prime. So naturally, I get excited when I see those first signs of spring: spring onions, asparagus and artichokes.

Artichokes can actually be found at the market here in Turin from October, but I prefer to wait to buy them until March, because the ones that come then generally come from the neighbouring region of Liguria and have thus accumulated less food miles.

The artichoke or cynara cardunculus var. scolymus is a cultivated descendant of the wild cardoon. It is basically a  variety of a species of thistle cultivated as a food[i]. While I still find myself wondering how on earth someone came up with the idea of trying to grow a thistle for food, I nevertheless concede, this person was on to a good thing! I think they are absolutely delicious.

The Italian word for artichoke is carciofo. It mostly likely derives from the Spanish alcachofa  or the Arabic al-kharshuf. Today, most artichoke cultivation is concentrated around the Mediterranean basin. Italy, Egypt, Spain and France are among the biggest producers of these edible thistles. Italy, in fact, appears to have more 120 different varieties of artichokes! Some of the most famous ones include ‘spined’ varieties such as:

  • spinoso ligure
  • spinoso sardo
  • spinoso di Sicilia
  • veneto di Chioggia
  • violetto di Toscana

and rounder, unspined varieties often with purplish tinges :

  • Violetto di Catania
  • Paestum
  • Romanesco or mammola

When I was growing up in Australia, I was more familiar with the rounder non-spined type that my Sicilian grandmother would prepare stuffed with breadcrumbs, pecorino, parsley and pepper.  Given my adopted region of Piedmont’s proximity to the region of Liguria, I’ve learnt to appreciate (and to cut and clean! A real lavorone if there ever was one!) the wonderful flavour of spined spinoso ligure variety. When very fresh, spined varieties can be eaten raw in salads (obviously they require a lot of pruning before eating them!). The recipes below are therefore prepared with the spinoso ligure variety.

Linguine con ragù bianco ai carciofi

This recipe is loosely based on Sonia Peronaci’s[ii].

Ingredients

  • 400 g minced beef
  • 5 spined artichokes, cleaned (thoroughly!) and sliced finely
  • 2 lemons, to clean and prepare artichokes
  • 1 carrot, chopped finely
  • 1 celery stalk, chopped finely
  • 1 onion, chopped finely
  • 1 glass white wine
  • 5 litre vegetable broth
  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 sprig thyme
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Method

  1. Clean and prepare artichokes. Be patient and do not skip this step![iii]
  2. Slice artichokes finely and place them in a bowl with water and lemon juice so the artichoke slices do not oxidise.
  3. In a large frying pan, add olive oil, and fry the chopped onions, carrots and celery on medium heat. When they are a nice golden colour add the minced beef. Allow to fry for about 15 minutes. Add glass of white wine allow to simmer until reduced.
  4. Drain artichokes in colander and add them to the ragù. Maintain medium heat and cook ragù and artichoke mixture for an additional 25 minutes.
  5. Using a ladle add broth to ragù mixture as necessary,
  6. Season with salt, pepper and sprig of thyme.
  7. In the meantime, cook the linguine (according to your pack’s instructions).
  8. Drain the linguine in a colander when they are ready (they should still be al dente) and then add them to the pan with the ragù bianco ai carciofi. Allow the pasta and the ragù to simmer together for 2 minutes and serve.

Spaghetti, carciofi ed arselle

The recipe  below is a seafood and artichoke pasta dish. It is based on a recipe from La Cucina Italiana dalla A alla Z. Arselle are a variety of clam found in the Mediterranean. Unlike vongole, they are not farmed but fished seasonally. Should arselle not be available, vongole work just fine too.

Ingredients

  • 1 kg clams, thoroughly soaked, cleaned and drained.
  • 5 spined artichokes, cleaned (thoroughly!) and sliced finely
  • 3 lemons, (2 to clean and prepare the artichokes; 1 to season pasta, arselle and artichokes)
  • 1 onion
  • Parsley, finely chopped
  • White wine
  • Vegetable broth
  • Extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Method

  1. Soak, clean and drain the clams according to the instructions indicated below. Do not skip this step (unless you want to eat copious amounts of sand!)[iv]
  2. Clean and prepare artichokes.
  3. Slice artichokes finely and place them in a bowl with water and lemon juice so the artichoke slices do not oxidise.
  4. In a large frying pan, add olive oil, and fry the chopped onions until golden.
  5. Drain artichokes in colander and add them to frying pan. Allow to fry for about 15-20 minutes and ladlefuls of broth should the mixture become too dry. When artichoke slices are nice and tender, turn off heat.
  6. In the meantime, bring to boil water in large saucepan. This will be for your pasta. Cook the spaghetti (according to your pack’s instructions) until perfectly al dente. [v]
  7. Add clams, the artichoke and onion mixture and a glass of white wine to another large saucepan (preferably thick-bottomed and made of stainless steel). Cover with lid and cook on medium to high heat. The clams will start to open after about 3-4 minutes.
  8. Drain spaghetti in colander and turn off heat for saucepan with clam mixture after 10 minutes. Discard any clams that have not opened up. Add spaghetti, a little olive oil and lemon juice, finely chopped parsley and seasoning to the clam mixture. Toss carefully and serve!

[i] Please visit the following links for information regarding this edible thistle:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Artichoke

http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html

http://www.sustainabletable.org/2439/real-food-right-now-and-how-to-cook-it-artichokes

http://www.vegparadise.com/highestperch48.html

http://www.ladolcevitacooking.com/5-main-italian-artichokes-varieties

http://www.ortaggipugliesi.it/index.php?aid=122

http://www.marcopolo.tv/articoli/carciofi-dove-come-quando/

http://www.agraria.org/coltivazionierbacee/carciofo.htm

http://www.ilgiornaledelcibo.it/tra-frigo-e-dispensa/prodotto.asp?id=32

http://www.carciofiamo.it/sicilia-Produzione+e+commercializzazione+del+carciofo-147.asp

[ii] http://ricette.giallozafferano.it/Spaghetti-con-ragu-bianco-ai-carciofi.html

[iii] Please visit the following link on how to clean and prepare artichokes: http://www.italianfoodforever.com/2009/12/how-to-clean-an-artichoke/ N.B. when preparing spined artichokes, I highly recommend using garden gloves to avoid any nasty pricks and cuts!

[iv] To clean the clams, you will need to: 1. Rinse with cold running water and scrub; 2. Place in large bowl and cover with cold water. Leave to soak for a couple of hours; 3. Drain and rinse well and repeat steps 2 and 3.

[v] N.B. Steps 6 and 7 should be done simultaneously! As Jamie Oliver says, timing is everything when making a pasta with clams dish! http://www.jamieoliver.com/recipes/pasta-recipes/spaghetti-vongole

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