Spring is for artichokes
One of the aspects of Italian cuisine which I truly love is seasonal eating. Yes, we live in a world where one can find whatever their heart desires at any time of year. However, in this country, there remains an emphasis on seasonality. When I think of summer, I think of the superstars; tomatoes, eggplants, zucchini flowers, and figs. The fall evokes porcini mushrooms, pumpkin, and if you’re lucky, more figs. Winter brings us pomegranates, potatoes, persimmons, and delicious sweet clementines.
But spring? Spring is all about the artichokes. They start to arrive in February and March and typically run through May. And let me tell you, they are everywhere. They’re on menus, at farmers’ markets, and on roadside trucks. You’ll find restaurants cleaning crates of them on their patios before lunch and dinner, the employees surrounded by the trimmings piled high.
How do you prepare artichokes?
There are many ways to prepare them. Carciofi alla giudia (Jewish artichokes) is a specialty of the Roman ghetto where they double fry the flowers until brown and crispy. Some folks prefer a simple, fresh raw artichoke salad with pecorino cheese, olive oil, and lemon. Neopolitans roast them over hot coals. And of course, they can be stuffed with any variety of ingredients mixed with bread crumbs. But in this post, we’re talking about one of my favorite ways to prepare them, Carciofi all Romana.
Shopping for artichokes
You’ll want to use the freshest artichokes you can find. I recommend shopping at a farmer’s market rather than the grocery store. For this dish, we use a specific type called la mammola or Romanesco artichokes for this recipe. They are big and round with non-spiny leaves. If you aren’t sure of the freshness, break off one of the outer leaves. If it breaks easily and makes a cracking sound, it’s crisp and fresh. If it doesn’t, it’s probably old and you won’t be able to clean them well.
Roman Artichoke Recipe
I’m using the word recipe a bit liberally here. This is more of a tutorial on a method of preparation rather than an exacting recipe. Trust me, that’s the best way for carciofi alla Romana. But for the purposes of giving you a list (Americans love lists) here you go:
- 4 Fresh artichokes
- 1 lemon
- 1 bunch parsley
- Big handful of mentuccia (or sub mint)
- 2 cloves garlic
- Salt & pepper
- Olivando extra virgin olive oil
The ingredients are few but always of the best quality. Artichokes, lemon, garlic, parsley, mentuccia, olive oil, and water. I had never heard of mentuccia before moving to Umbria. It’s in the mint family and has a very delicate flavor. The taste is really interesting, like mint had a tryst with oregano, and mentuccia is the resulting love child. Where we live, it grows wild and literally covers our lawn. (Side note, it’s excellent on slow-roasted tomatoes.) Anyhow, if you don’t have access to this herb, don’t fret. You can use mint or just parsley by itself. Fresh chives would also be delicious here, IMO. Maybe I’ll try that next time – my herb box is full of them!
Method for cleaning artichokes
First up, let’s clean the artichokes. To do this, you’ll need a small, sharp paring knife, a couple of paper towels, a lemon cut in half, and a big bowl of water. Squeeze half the lemon in the water to acidify it and plop it in the bowl. We’ll use the other half to rub on the artichokes as we clean them, to prevent them from oxidizing and turning black. Begin by breaking off the tough outer leaves. Work your way around the artichoke until you reach the tender petals. Using the paring knife, carve the bottom where you have removed the petals.
Next, trim the outer, fibrous green portion of the stem, leaving about 2 inches of length and the inner core. Using a large sharp knife, cut off the tips. Use your fingers to delicately open the flower and use a melon baller to remove the center choke. This fibrous, furry part is inedible. Rub everything with the halved lemon, then place it in the acidulated water. Place the paper towel on top to keep everything submerged while you keep working.
Herb mixture for carciofi alla Romana
Now it’s time to make the herb mixture. Finely chop the parsley and mentuccia or mint. Mince the garlic. Mix them together on the cutting board, along with a pinch of salt and a hefty grind of black pepper. Next to the pile of herbs, put a little salt and pepper on the board.
Stuffing the artichokes
One at a time, remove the artichokes from the water, pat dry, and stuff the herbs in the center where the choke was removed. Then, gently, push the herbs in between the petals. Rub it with a little of that extra salt and pepper, being careful not to go overboard with the salt. Place it flower side down in a pan. You’ll want to use a pan that will hold the artichokes together tightly. Four fit nicely into your average saucepan.
Cooking the artichokes
Once you’ve got everything in the pan, add Olivando EVOO, a little less than halfway up the flower(s). Add water to the pot, going no higher than the base of the flower. By now, you should understand why this is an anti-recipe. Depending on the number of artichokes, the size of the artichokes, and the size of your pan, the amounts of each ingredient can change quite a bit. Too much or too little oil or water, and you won’t get a good result.
Cover and cook on low for approximately 30 minutes, until tender. You can serve them warm; however, most prefer them at room temperature. Buon appetito! If you make carciofi alla Romana, let us know how you liked it! Tag us on social media and use also use #olivando.