There they were, standing in a bucket with just enough water to keep their stems hydrated. My in-laws had just spent a month enjoying the bounties of nature only spring in Liguria can provide and had promised to stop by with some of the carciofi or artichokes the coastal region south of Piedmont is famous for. They weren’t the bulbous, round-leafed variety my family cooked with in Australia. I quickly discarded my initial idea of stuffing them with breadcrumbs, pecorino cheese, parsley and pepper like Nonna Sarina often did. Their tighter, elongated shape just did not suit being ripieni or stuffed. Instead, I remembered another recipe I’d recently come across in my favourite Italian cooking magazine at the time, La Cucina Italiana. Anna and Aldo had left too quickly though for me to ask them a very important question: how exactly do I trim an artichoke, and a spinoso or spiky one at that?
Luckily enough, the recipe I had bookmarked, carciofi trifolati, included the fine print. But, as the saying goes, a picture (or, better yet, a moving picture) is worth a thousand words. Only after watching a chef on YouTube skillfully peeling away at their tough, thorny outer leaves did I feel up to the task of trimming the specimens – 10 in all – sitting in that bucket my in-laws had generously brought over.
Many artichoke seasons have passed since that messy and occasionally painful afternoon. I’m proud to say though that I pulled off making a side of artichokes braised in olive oil, garlic, parsley, white wine and vegetable broth for that evening’s dinner. The dish quickly became part of my springtime culinary repertoire. I’ve also become much more confident about performing the bristly, above-mentioned task. And, since artichoke season coincides with Lent and our vegetarian theme for this edition of Cucina Conversations, I felt compelled to make this contorno – completely free of any animal-derived ingredients – again.
Descended from the wild cardoon, the artichoke’s name in Spanish, Italian and French – al-carchofo, carciofo and artichaut, respectively – all derive from the Arabic al-kharshuf, suggesting an origin along North Africa’s Barbary Coast. However, as Gillian Riley points out, plotting the towering thistle’s route from there to the princely courts of the Renaissance is difficult. Few would disagree though with Jane Grigson, author of the wonderfully readable Vegetable Book, when she credits the Italians with making the artichoke ‘the aristocrat of the Renaissance kitchen garden’. Certainly, the variety of artichokes in Italy is mindbogglingly vast, 120 at last count. As for artichoke-based recipes, the list of these is equally long. The globe-like mammole of Lazio, complete with purple-tinged leaves, are often used to make deep-fried carciofi alla giudia, a dish originating from the Jewish Ghetto of Rome. Similarly shaped artichokes elsewhere in the country lend themselves wonderfully to being stuffed much like the carciofi ripieni my Sicilian nonna made. Those slightly threatening thorny Ligurians? When young and super fresh, these are just wonderful sliced finely and served raw in a salad topped with shavings of parmesan.
Now, the carciofi trifolati below are cooked, but I still like to apply the rules used for the raw salad I just described when sourcing them. Seek out the freshest possible oval-shaped specimens you can find with their stems and leaves still attached. They should also be ‘young’ and by that I mean their leaves should be tightly closed. Artichokes, after all, are flowers. As they age and bloom, their texture toughens resulting in a longer cooking time than the one indicated below. A barba or ‘beard’ also starts to grow inside their chokes. Basically, the younger they are, the less hair you’ll need to remove come cleaning and trimming time…
Ah yes, cleaning and trimming! Over the years, I’ve learnt the hard way to prepare your work station in advance when performing this task, particularly if you have spiky artichokes. Do ensure you have the following on hand before you start removing their tough, outer leaves: a large bowl to collect that thorny foliage (you don’t want to transfer this with your bare hands to your compost bin, believe me!); a lemon wedge to rub your artichokes while trimming them (this stops them from oxidising) ; and another large bowl filled will cold, acidulated water (another precaution against discolouration) to place your trimmed artichokes in until you’re ready to go.
Some more notes regarding the recipe below. I’ve indicated to cut the trimmed artichokes into eight equal sized pieces. If, however, you’re lucky enough to get your hands on smaller, younger artichokes, four or even two slices should be sufficient. Also, my photos may suggest otherwise (I bought my carciofi on a miserable, rainy day at the market and the number of quality specimens was limited unfortunately) but don’t discard the artichokes’ upper stems! They are just as tasty – and for some people, even more so – as the budding flower above them. Reserve the 3 cm below their bases and peel their external layer until reaching the white part underneath.
A final note, this time on serving your carciofi trifolati. Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin which makes everything you eat or drink afterwards taste unusually sweet and metallic. This makes wine pairings, a new interest of mine, somewhat tricky. Your best bet according to my wine-savvy friend Amanda? Something light and white, such as a Sardinian Vermentino. Tannin-rich red wines tend to accentuate the astringency of the artichokes but, if you don’t care for white wine, a red Rossese di Dolceacqua from Liguria works well too.
Ingredients (serves 4 generously as a side dish)
- 1 lemon
- 10 spiky, oval-shaped Ligurian or Sardinian artichokes
- olive oil, for frying
- 2 garlic cloves, peeled and very finely chopped
- a fistful of parsley, very finely chopped
- 125mL white wine
- 125mL vegetable broth (or hot water)
- Salt, to taste
- Pepper, freshly ground, to taste
Fill a large bowl with cold water and the juice of half a lemon. Remove the tough, outer leaves of the artichokes until reaching the tender, pale-green or light purple leaves underneath. Cut the stems about 3 cm from the artichokes’ bases and peel until reaching the white layer below. Remove any remainders of outer leaves attached to the base. Cut the spiked ends of the artichokes off about 1.5 – 2 cm from the top.
Now, cut the artichokes in half lengthways and, if present, remove the bearded choke with a teaspoon or a melon baller. Cut the halves into quarters, and if working with larger artichokes, again into eighths. At each stage, rub the cut areas with a lemon wedge to prevent oxidisation. Place in bowl filled with acidulated water. Drain and dry well just before cooking.
Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan and add the finely chopped garlic cloves and the sliced and thoroughly drained artichokes. Fry on medium heat, stirring often. Pour in the white wine and leave it to evaporate. Add half of the finely chopped parsley and vegetable broth (or hot water). Reduce heat and cover.
Braise artichokes for 15-20 minutes or until tender. Remove lid, turn up heat and cook until the liquid has almost completely reduced. Taste and season with salt and pepper accordingly. Serve with the remaining half of the chopped parsley on top.
Still looking for more vegetarian inspiration? Well, don’t forget to visit my fellow bloggers’ posts on this subject:
Like me, Carmen from The Heirloom Chronicles, also has a close family member (her daughter) who is vegan. This month, she talks wild edibles (check out her blog’s new wild harvest page) and has made some potato and chicory croquettes which are completely vegan.
Daniela, from La Dani Gourmet, is making pasta al forno di magro, a Lenten version of the normally meat-laden pasta al forno. I also couldn’t help noticing she has a couple of artichoke recipes. Her most recent one is for Bulghur with seafood and artichokes.
Flavia, from Flavia’s Flavors, is making a savoury tart with a seasonal favourite of mine, spinach, with her torta rustica di spinaci. Oh, and here’s a link to another vegan recipe I love on her blog, sweet and sour cipolline.
Francesca, from Pancakes and Biscotti, has made something I have always wanted make, a frittata di spaghetti e asparagi. She recently posted a recipe for that sublime (and vegan!) deep-fried Roman-Jewish dish made with round mammole, carciofi alla giudia.
Marialuisa from Marmellata di Cipolle, has cooked up one of my husband’s favourite greens, chard, with her pasticcio di bietole e formaggio. She’s also got a great vegetarian recipe (in Italian) for something I’m dying to make later this spring, elderflower fritters.