In Season: Artichokes

 

The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilized living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. […] It had no place in the troll’s world of instant gratification. It makes no appeal to the meat-and-two-veg mentality.

Jane Grigson, The Vegetable Book

 

A Thorny Matter

The artichoke asks us to engage in a game of unveiling. It’s a work of revelation. Leaf after leaf after leaf – snap, snap, snap – one uncovers its innermost part, the pale, tender heart buried underneath its thorny armor. It requires patience and skill, but once mastered, the process becomes close to unconscious, while the result will never cease to provide much satisfaction. From there, possibilities are endless.

The season of artichokes varies greatly depending on the variety. Spiky artichokes are in season across the winter months, and tend to come to an end around the end of April. Round and globe artichokes, on the other hand, are spring varieties. Petit violets, then, can bridge the season by coming around in late spring and sticking around until the heat strikes. To me, the best season for artichokes remains April. That’s when most of the local varieties are at their peak – abundant, delicious and often inexpensive.

How to choose artichokes


When you see a good pile artichokes at the market or the greengrocer, allow yourself to be excited: they are a delicacy, especially when found outside of their growing regions. But because they don’t come cheap, beyond the excitement it’s important to make sure that they are good quality and worth their price tag. So, before you stick them in your baskets, look out for these few revealing signs. First off, they should still have stems and leaves. The latter should preferably be not limply or dry. The colour of the artichokes themselves should be even and vivid, without bruising or discolouration. They should feel firm to the touch, particularly at the base; the outer leaves should snap out easily, best if without making a squeaky sound. The top should be closed up, and if cut open, they should have close to no choke. If you find artichokes that fit all these requirements – no matter the variety – go ahead and buy them. You’re in for a treat.

How to prepare an artichoke


Before you begin, rub your hands with some lemon juice to avoid ending up with dark cuticles. Alternatively, wear a pair of disposable gloves – these are particularly helpful when dealing with thorny thistles. Artichokes contain substances that oxidate when they come in contact with air. For this reason, having a bowl of lemony water in which to keep them as you prep them is a very good idea. Now, to clean and trim your artichoke, start by cutting off most of the stem (leave it to 2-4 cm, depending on the recipe). They, start removing – either by paring or snapping (I prefer the latter) – the outer leaves. You want to snap liberally here, free of any worries about the amount of leaves you’re tossing away. Yes, there’s a lot of wastage. But being adamant about only keeping the truly edible, tender leaves is essential to the success of any artichoke dish. You really don’t want to end up having to pick bit of tougher – uncooked, inedible – leaves off your mouth after having tried to chew them for five minutes. So. Snap away.

Once you’ve reached the part of the artichoke where the leaves (or petals, really) feels tender, delicate, almost silk-like, then stop snapping away and get hold of a pairing knife. Trim the base of the artichoke so that any remaining bits of outer leaves are cut away. Then, chop off the tips. How much? It depends on the type of artichoke you’re dealing with. With spiky artichokes, you want to make sure you’ve cut off all the thorns. With rounder varieties such as Roman artichokes, you can trim the ends in a sort of spiral way, to avoid throwing away too much of it. Ideally, you want an end product that’s about 4-5 cm from base to top. Then, peel the stem so that only the pale-green-to-white core is left. At every passage, squeeze some lemon juice on the cut parts on pain on them darkening in a matter of seconds.

The final steps consists in removing the choke. If the recipe calls for a whole artichoke, then use a melon baller to scoop out the furry fuzz. If the recipe calls for halved, quartered or sliced artichokes, then cut the artichoke in halves and, using the same pairing knife, cut it out from the base.

At this point, plunge the artichokes in the lemon water until ready to use them, ideally in a matter of minutes. Just ensure to drain them and pat them dry before adding them to your frying pan.


Artichoke recipes

Carciofi alla Romana

The best type of artichokes for this recipe is mammole romane, the round, chubby kind from Central Italy. In her cult book Ammarcord, Marcella Hazan mentions how she learnt how to clean and trim mammole from a lady selling artichokes at the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome. That same lady taught her the ‘trick of the towel’: by placing a damp kitchen towel between the pan and the lid, the moisture produced by the cooking process remains trapped in the pan and helps the artichokes turn creamy and tender all the way through.

Roman-style artichokes are great served cold or at room-temperature, as an appetiser or a side to fresh cheese and cold cuts. I liked them paired with creamy burrata or ricotta, crusty bread, and a glass of aged Ligurian Vermentino.

Serves 3-4

6 romanesco or globe artichokes
1 lemon
2 garlic cloves, minced
A small bunch of parsley, finely chopped
A small handful of fresh mint leaves, finely chopped
Fine-grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
60 ml (1/4 cup) extra virgin olive oil
80 ml (1/3 cup) dry white wine

Before you start, you’ll need to get hold of a fairly deep, large pan with a lid – one where you can easily fit the six (standing) artichokes and part of their stem.

Using a small serrated knife, halve the lemon and squeeze some juice on the blade. Prepare the artichokes: remove the outer leaves until you find those which are pale green and/or light purple. Trim the stalk 5 cm from the base and peel it to reveal the white part. Remove any remaining bit of the outer leaves still attached to the base. Finally, trim the ends – cut about 1.5 cm from the tip. At every passage, rub the cut parts with lemon juice to prevent discoloration. Spread the artichoke open and remove the choke at its centre. Repeat with the rest of the artichokes.

In a small bowl, mix together the parsley, mint and garlic, then season with salt and pepper to taste. Fill the artichokes’ core with equal amounts of this herb and garlic mixture. Place the artichokes upside down in the prepared pan; drizzle with olive oil, then add the wine and enough water to cover the artichokes by one-third.

Place a damp kitchen towel on top of the pan and then cover with a lid. Fold the corners of the kitchen towel and tie them to the top of the lid. Set over a medium heat and cook the artichokes for 30 to 35 minutes. Test for doneness by sticking a fork inside the base of the artichokes. Don’t be afraid of overcooking them – the longer you leave them on the stove, the more tender, the better.

Once done, transfer the artichokes, stems up, to a large platter. Allow them to cool to room temperature, then dress them with some of their cooking juices and serve.

Wine-Braised Artichokes

This is a simple effective way of cooking artichokes, perfect for when you want a delicious, fuss-free side dish. You can also add them to a plain risotto – just stir them in close to the end, right before the cheese and butter.

Serves 3-4

6 violet artichokes
1 lemon
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
3 garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
120 ml dry white wine
120 ml water
Fine-grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Finely chopped fresh parsley, to taste


Start by removing the outer leaves from the artichokes – keep going until you find the very tender, lightly-coloured ones. Chop the stalk 2 cm from the base and peel it to reveal the white part. Pare away any remaining tough bits attached to the base. Finally, trim the ends at about 2 cm from the top.

Cut the artichokes in half and remove the hairy choke, then cut them into quarters. Rub the cut parts with lemon juice at every step so they don’t darken too much.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet set over a medium-high heat. Once hot, add garlic and the artichoke quarters. Fry for 4-5 minutes, until just browned, stirring often. Next, top with the wine and water, cover with a lid and reduce the heat to medium-low.

Braise for about 20 minutes, or until they feel cooked through. At this point, uncover turn the heat back up to medium-high and let the cooking liquids reduce to a glistening sauce. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a couple of turns of the pepper grinder. Garnish with fresh parsley and serve right away.

Carciofi alla Veneziana

In her brilliant book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David has a recipe for Carciofi alla Veneziana that immediately captured my attention. The dish – compelling and yet uncomplicated – is nothing short of sheer joy. In its simplicity, it infuses the reader and the cook with a sense of accomplishment that starts at the stove and continues at the table.

The original recipe calls for the artichokes to be braised in a mixture of olive oil, white wine and water. I have found that a splash of white vermouth adds a pleasant sweet note. As the cooking liquid reduces, the sugars in the vermouth caramelise and give way to a herb-scented, deliciously sticky sauce.

I have been serving these artichokes with a simple bowl of creamy cannellini beans drenched in oil. I can see them working very well with some lamb, too, perhaps with a mint sauce on the side.

Serves 3-4

6 spiky or violet artichokes
1 lemon
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
60 ml (1/4 cup) white vermouth (OR semi-dry white wine)
60 ml (1/4 cup) water
Fine-grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
6-8 fresh mint leaves (optional)


Start by cleaning the artichokes. Using a small serrated knife, halve the lemon and squeeze some juice on the blade. Remove the tough outer leaves from the artichokes. Trim the stalk 3 cm from the base and peel it off to reveal core. Pare away any bits still attached to the base of the artichoke. Trim the ends – about 2 cm from the top.

Cut the artichokes in half to remove the hairy choke, then cut them into quarters. If you are working with small violet artichokes, you might want to leave them cut in half. At every passage, rub the cut parts with lemon juice to avoid any discolouration.

Heat the oil in a large skillet set over a medium-high heat. Add the artichokes and fry them for a couple of minutes, until sizzling. Add the vermouth and allow it to evaporate, then add the water, reduce the heat and cover with a lid.

Allow the artichokes to braise for 20 minutes – add a splash of water if you see the liquid reducing too quickly. When the artichokes are tender all the way though, remove the lid, Increase the heat and carry on cooking until the cooking juices have reduced to a sticky, light-brown sauce. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a couple of turns of the pepper grinder. Serve with roughly torn mint leaves if you like the thought of it.

Artichoke Salad

This is the best thing to do with artichokes that are or look as if they were just picked from the field – snappy, crisp and tender. It makes for a simple yet impactful starter salad, or a nice side to some simply baked or grilled white fish such as bream or bass.

Serves 3-4

4 spiky artichokes,
1 lemon
Extra virgin olive oil, to taste
Flakey salt, to taste
Shaved Parmigiano or aged pecorino

With a serrated knife, halve the lemon and squeeze some juice on the blade. Remove the outer leaves from the artichokes until you find those which look pale green or light purple. Trim the stalk to 2 cm from the base and peel it to reveal the white part. Cut away any remaining tough bits still attached to the base. Finally, trim the ends at about about 2cm from the top.

Cut the artichokes in half to remove the choke, then turn the cut side down and slice it very thinly. Squeeze some lemon juice on top to prevent them from darkening.

Place the artichoke slices on a plate. Dress with a generous splash of your best olive oil, some crushed flakey salt. Top with the Parmesan or pecorino shavings. Serve right away.

Vignarola

Vignarola is a spring vegetable stew hailing from Rome. An explosion of flavour and greenness, it is in season when its three main components – broad beans, peas, and artichokes – overlap at the market and are at their sweetest and most tender, normally from April to late May.

The vegetables are slowly braised in a mix of olive oil and water and/or white wine until glistening and tender and bursting with flavour. Some recipes call for a soffritto of guanciale (or pancetta) and onions (or spring onions) before the rest of the vegetables are added to the pan. Fresh mint or calamint (nepitella or mentuccia) are traditional garnishes, though it’s not uncommon to see a handful of finely chopped parsley thrown in, too.

Vignarola lends itself to many ways of serving it. It makes a great sidekick to grilled lamb chops or fresh pecorino. I also like it tossed with spaghetti or bucatini, then covered in grated pecorino romano, or piled on toast for a quick, picnic-style lunch.


Serves 3-4

1 lemon
4 spiky or violet artichokes
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
50 g guanciale or pancetta, minced
6 spring onions, trimmed and sliced
150 ml white wine
50 ml water
250 g shelled peas (about 1 kg in the pod)
250 g shelled broad beans (about 1 kg in the pod)
A small bunch of parsley, finely choppep
A small handful of roughly torn mint leaves (optional)
Fine-grain sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Cut the lemon in half and keep it handy. Prepare the artichokes by first removing the outer leaves. Using a small serrated knife, cut off the tips of the artichokes and three-quarters of the stem. Pare away any remaining tough bit from the base; peel the outer part of the stalk to reveal the white part. Squeeze some lemon juice over the cut parts as you go. Cut each artichoke into halves and remove any hairy choke, then cut each half in half. Drench in lemon juice and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large skillet set over a medium heat. Add the pancetta and fry for a few minutes, until crip, the fat rendered. Add the sliced spring onions and stir-fry them until soft and translucent. Next, add the artichokes; stir to coat them in oil. Add the wine and water, season, cover with a lid and cook for 15 minutes, stirring every so often.

Next, add the shelled broad beans. Cook them for 2-3 minutes, just enough for them to soften and brighten. Add the peas and cook them with the rest for a couple of minutes, until just soft. At the very end, stir in the parsley and mint (if using). Remove from the heat and let cool for 10 minutes. Serve warm.

To read: Coelho’s Ode to The Artichoke