Artichokes transformed

Italians know how to make this vegetable's leaves velvety and tender.

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

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Until recently, artichokes as a vegetable had been a great disappointment to me. Excellent as art object or table centerpiece, passable as a paper punch, but as edibles they fell short.

Then I arrived in Italy – a country where the average cook could make tree bark taste agreeable; imagine what they can do with the artichoke. By the time it arrives on your plate here, virtually the entire bulb is melt-on-your-tongue velvety and irresistibly flavorful. An alternative recipe creates a more crunchy leaf, but you can eat the entire leaf without any convulsive jiggering of the mandible.

By the time we set out for la sagra del carciofo romanesco (festival of the Roman artichoke) in Ladispoli one Saturday morning last year, my attitude toward this spike-edged vegetable had been transformed.

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Ladispoli is a seaside town about a half-hour drive northwest from Rome. By reputation, and owing to the nutrient-rich volcanic soil of the area, the local artichokes are among the best in Italy. Ladispoli's annual artichoke festival, held for three days in April since 1950, is hugely popular, attracting tens of thousands of people each year.

When we arrived, the first thing I did was search for an artichoke grower. I spotted one immediately. Tall and straight-backed, deeply tanned from long workdays in the sun, Arduino Moretti stood serenely at the front of his small booth next to stacked wooden crates overflowing with artichokes.

Originally from the central Italian region of Marche, Mr. Moretti moved to Ladispoli in the 1960s to grow artichokes. Today, he, the four members of his family, and one hired worker produce about 50,000 of the green and purple delicacies each year.

The Mediterranean artichoke season runs from December to April. Artichokes are relatively simple to cultivate, according to Moretti, but cold is their biggest enemy. Only a few degrees drop in temperature and a crop can be ruined. Last year's weather was so mild, they began gathering artichokes around Christmastime, Moretti said.

The vegetable, in fact, is the bud of a flower of a perennial thistle bush. Each plant produces many buds and, when mature, must be picked by hand. (Moretti's large hands are an exhibit themselves: lined, calloused, and stained from handling the artichoke's tough, iron-rich, purplish petals.)

The earliest artichoke buds on the bush are most prized. They are extraordinarily flavorful and tender. The plants continue to sprout new buds over the remaining season, but their size diminishes with each picking.

Next we wandered toward the food court, where workers under two large tents were cooking deep-fried artichokes on demand for a steady flow of customers drawn by the delicious aroma. In an adjacent booth, men roasted artichokes in a covered grill. This southern Italian method uses a seasoning of olive oil and mint leaves, which causes the artichoke to become succulently tender with a smoked flavor. Artichokes can also be buried in the hot ashes of an open fire and cooked slowly for a couple hours.

We ended the day with a must-see festival program: "Cooking It Well: All the ways to clean, cook, and decorate il carciofo romanesco."

The master of ceremonies introduced himself as a major-domo and member of Ladispoli's cultural association. The variety of artichoke grown in Ladispoli, he said, is the Romanesco, sometimes called Mammulo. It's a hybrid of the Sezze and the Campagnano. He then offered the following tips:

The artichoke is a flower and should be eaten before it blooms. Choose ones that are still closed and haven't begun to open.

Only the first two inches of the stem are good for eating, the remainder is too tough. The stems are best for making paté: Cook for at least two hours in water, with a generous amount of olive oil and season with salt and red and black pepper. Then purée.

In frying artichokes, the choice of flour for coating is important. The Japanese have been experimenting with different kinds of flour and have had success with the variety called Manitoba. It's also important that the artichokes and the batter are kept very cold before frying, to enhance the texture.

Our expert also told us that to cook artichokes evenly, we should keep the oil at a temperature no higher than 320 degrees F. For this reason, it's best to use a thermostat-controlled fryer.

I haven't been disappointed with an artichoke since.

Carciofi Alla Romana

(Roman Artichokes)

12 artichokes
2 to 3 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup nipitella (an Italian herb also known as Calamintha nepeta) leaves, chopped, fresh (may substitute mint or thyme)
1/4 cup seasoned bread crumbs
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Salt and pepper, to taste

Peel the first two or three layers of tough outer leaves from the artichokes (until the petals are mostly white), and discard. Slice off the top green part. With a small knife, remove the small thorny center beard of the artichoke. Slice off the stems. Keep the first two inches of the stem for cooking, discard the rest. (If not cooking immediately, place the artichokes in a bowl of water with a few slices of lemon.)

Mix together the minced garlic, chopped herbs, bread crumbs, 2 tablespoons olive oil, salt, and pepper.

With a small spoon, gently pry open the heart of the artichoke and insert approximately 1 teaspoon of the filling mixture.

Place the prepared artichokes, upside down, close together in a pot. If cooking the stems, cut into one-inch sections and place in the pot. Add 1 cup olive oil and enough water to reach halfway up the sides of the vegetables. Sprinkle with a little salt and pepper and place on the stove over medium heat. While cooking, periodically add water as necessary to maintain the halfway level, occasionally stirring the oil-water mixture to coat the artichokes. Cook at least an hour, or until tender. Can be served either warm or cold. Serves 6.

Carciofi fritti

(Fried Artichokes)

6 artichokes
1 cup flour
2 eggs, beaten
Oil, enough for deep frying
Salt and pepper, to taste
Lemon, to taste

Prepare the artichokes (as above). Slice each artichoke lengthwise into sections (four to eight, depending on size). Lightly dredge the artichoke sections in flour, then in the beaten eggs. Bring the oil to a temperature of 320 degrees F. and drop in the artichokes. Fry until golden brown (a few minutes). Remove and place on paper towels to absorb excess oil. Season with salt, pepper, and lemon. Best served warm. Serves 6.

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