Quick, it’s artichoke season, hurry to the market. There are bulbous deep purple Romanescos, paler green but equally plump globes, and pretty tulip shaped violette. There are baskets, piles, and crates. Truckloads parked on street corners selling ten for a song.
The first time I cooked artichokes they were an unmitigated disaster. I had chanced upon them at the Victoria Market, and probably just the sheer beauty of the box of small late season purple flowers saw me carting the whole lot home. I had NO idea how to deal with them. I remember consulting a very trustworthy cook’s companion, but I most probably hurried through the instructions, eager to get started and skimming over the important bits. They were tough, still spiky, unevenly cooked.
Italian – and particularly Roman – artichokes are so fleshy that one can afford to trim off everything that might be rough or prickly and then cook the lot to silky perfection. Romans love them ‘alla romana’; sauteed in wine and olive oil, and double fried ‘alla giudea’ a dish to save for one of the trattorias in the Jewish ghetto, a must visit slither of Rome between Largo Argentina and Isola Tiberina that I could write pages about. They can be cut into very fine slithers and made into a salad with lemon and parmigiano, or battered and fried in small wedges. At the end of the season smaller chokes sprout off the plant, as if the organism has run out of chuff and can only spit out a few last small ones. These are the artichokes that we know as ‘hearts’; trimmed, cooked in wine and vinegar and preserved under oil. I love them roasted with something meaty, letting the lamb or sausage fat run off and toast the outer leaves. Yes, there are many fine ways to cook an artichoke.
How to clean artichokes
Prepare a bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon and have another halved lemon ready to spritz as you work as artichokes discolor quickly.
The tough outer leaves need to be removed and the stalk stripped so that only the soft pale inner leaves remain. Be courageous, Romans like to clean their artichokes so well that only the tender flesh remains. You will know when you see the paler more tender leaves emerge.
The top of each artichoke should be cut off because the tops of the petals remain too tough to eat and then the inside of the flower needs to be carefully scraped out using a teaspoon. As each one is cleaned spritz with lemon and place in the bowl of water.
Carciofi alla Romana braised artichokes Roman style
4 globe artichokes
Handful of wild mint
4 cloves of garlic
extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Clean (as above). Each artichoke then gets stuffed with a clove of garlic, some parsley and mint. The Romans use local wild mint called mentuccia but any kind, or another herb like oregano will do. Some cooks like to mince finely the garlic and wild mint and mix with breadcrumbs to then stuff in the cavity.
Heat a generous pour of olive oil in a heavy based saucepan with a lid. Coat artichokes with oil quickly, arrange on their sides or stalk up so that they fit well, bring up to a high heat and splash in some white wine, a cup of water and put the lid on to cook. Lower the flame to a medium heat and check regularly. They will take about 15-20 minutes to cook depending on size. To serve add some more chopped herbs, olive oil and lemon to the juices.
Carciofi al Forno baked artichokes
Artichokes are perhaps the most Roman of all vegetables, and cooked ‘alla romana’ or ‘alla giudea’ hold their place high in the pantheon of Roman food. Roasting them in the oven is another fine way of serving artichokes, the cooking process helped along by a quick blanching first.
1 artichoke per person
1 large lemon
3 cloves of garlic
extra virgin olive oil
white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 190°C.
Clean artichokes (as above).
Bring a large pot of water to the boil, add 2 tablespoons of white wine vinegar and blanch artichokes for 5 minutes. Dry well on a clean tea towel or kitchen paper.
In an oven tray toss the blanched artichokes in salt and olive oil and roast in oven for approx 40 minutes, turning a couple of times. Fabulous roasted alongside pieces of lamb or sausages. As a piece of meat like lamb shoulder will take longer to cook, get it started first and add artichokes for final 40 minutes.
Photos by: Marie Sjoberg (steps), Mark Chew (header), Lorenzo Pesce (dishes)