The Ultimate Artichoke Recipe

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In Rome, artichoke season opens in the  early autumn with the arrival of little violetti – from Sicily,  followed as winter rolls in by the prickly, spiny Sardinian magarosa  resembling purplish, armored tulips.  These triumph till spring, when the fat, Roman globe artichokes flood the markets. The season peaks between mid April and early May,  so we may enjoy one last glorious feast  of this noble vegetable with its bitter, pungent taste of spring, its budding promise of summer bloom  to devour with  gusto and not one iota of guilt.

So many places I love in Italy have their artichoke specialties    from the  bronze sunflower- like mandala of the  deep fried  carciofo  alla giudea – a traditional Roman delight served  in the famous restaurants of Rome’s ghetto  — to the rustic, filling artichoke and fava soups  I first tasted  at  the  Pensione  Isolabella   on the island  of Ventotene  on a cold  stormy spring night when high seas spattered  the windows.    Or  the tiny pickled hearts of  the carciofi tardive sometimes called  figli,  hardly bigger than a quail’s egg, blanched in vinegar,  seasoned with fennel, pepper, and preserved  in olive  oil  to be eaten as an accompaniment to  unsalted Tuscan  bread.   Or the chic slimming salad of  thinly sliced raw artichokes and flakes of parmesan cheese, dressed with lemon and olive oil, which  they  used to serve years ago, at one of my favorite restaurants in  Rome  Da Luigi just around the corner from  the Chiesa Nuova.

In my long sojourns  in Rome, I  have accumulated dozens of artichoke recipes for spaghetti, crepes,  soups, garnishes,  involtini, quiches, stews,  torte rustiche, and phyllo dough concoctions,  but it was only recently that I happened upon what  I consider the  ultimate artichoke recipe:  the hearth-roasted artichoke, as suggested by hearth and wood oven expert, William Rubel, in his extraordinary cookbook dedicated to hearth cooking,  The Magic of Fire.

The satisfaction given by cooking on an open hearth is something elemental and primeval, I suppose, stirring childhood memories of cook outs and campfires, fantasies of survival, of  living in a cabin hidden in the woods, of which Gaston Bachelard speaks so poetically in his philosophical study of houses, The Poetics of Space.

If such reveries tickle your imagination,  Rubel’s  book, of which I will offer a fuller review on a later blog, will be perfect bedtime reading.  Here amid recipes of complex baking, roasting, and stewing techniques for the open hearth  used by our ancestors in the olden days, I came upon a page of suggestions for hearth-roasting a variety of vegetables, including artichokes. (Rubel’s book, originally published in 2002, recently got a mention in the New York Times for its discussion of egg spoons).

The procedure is a simple one.  Get a fire roaring and let it burn down to a pile of embers, and while the flames are crackling,  prepare your artichokes for roasting.   First, wash the artichokes well, remove the stem,  and nip off the tip. With a knife, dig out any fluff from the core, but leave the outer leaves on.  Then beat the artichoke against a hard surface,  such as   a marble table top,  or kitchen counter   to flatten it a bit and open up the leaves.  Into the heart and in between the outer layer of leaves,  pack fresh herbs (tarragon, parsley, chives, fresh fennel, dill, fresh thyme, mint or mentuccia, the wild mint growing everywhere along country lanes in Italy, or santoreggia,  a wild herb that favors dry walls), slip in finely chopped garlic and capers, and then dribble olive oil in the heart and in between the leaves.

Using your fire thongs, nestle each artichoke right on the embers, and cocoon each artichoke with red hot embers.  The outer leaves will scorch, but the heart will cook slowly, and in roughly 20 -30 minutes, they’re done. Cooking time depends on the heat and quantity of embers. Remove the artichokes, dust off the ashes, peel away the charred outer leaves, and voilà,   a unique  gastronomic experience.  The artichoke, slightly al dente, retains its characteristic pungent flavor  with the addition of a delicious smoky taste mingled with fresh herbs.  A wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb.

In Velletri near Rome, a festival is dedicated to ember-roasted artichokes – La Sagra del Carciofo alla Matticella, where huge braziers are set up in the piazza in mid April to prepare these delicacies for hungry crowds.  Matticelle are bundles of clippings from the grape vines after the vineyards have been pruned, once used to heat humbler homes in winter, but also for cooking on the coals. The clippings from different grape varieties impart different flavors to the food.

More about artichokes

Artichokes are renowned in Italy for their curative powers, especially the leaves, which French researcher Jean Valnet cites in his Cura delle Malattie con Ortaggi,  Frutta, e Cereali  as having  a beneficial effect on bile production, liver health, and cholesterol.  The many varieties of artichokes are akin to cardoons, and common thistles,  such as milk thistle, known  cardo mariano,  which, according to Mrs. M. Grieve’s  Modern Herbal  (1931) once upon time was commonly cultivated in the kitchen gardens of England as a salad plant.  Giovanna Garzoni, still life painter to the Medici family in the seventeenth century, often used them in her compositions.

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Blogger Mary Jane Cryan celebrates the Artichoke Festival of Ladispoli, providing interesting anecdotes about the history of this favorite vegetable, http://50yearsinitaly.blogspot.it/    For an amusing video tutorial on how to make spaghetti  ai Carciofi,  see Sergio Baldassare’s  You Tube video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4EnxZDgbips&feature=relmfu

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7 Food Writing Prompts

Food writing, focusing on the personal experience of food — combining memoirs, recipes, technical information, and history in a literary or journalistic text, is a relatively recent genre, popularized in the 20th century in the USA by the incomparable MFK Fisher — although there have been some notable precursors, such as Marcel Proust. In turn, it has given rise to one of the most creative and remunerative forms of blogging today.  A quick glance at Instagram or Twitter feeds will show that we are obsessed with our food and with what other people are eating and cooking. That should be no surprise: a great deal of human history has focused on food.

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Etruscan cook preparing food for a banquet

 

From a psychological point of view, food is our connection with our mothers, with our most archaic identity as a newborn for whom the very first physical sensation as an independent being is hunger. Food and hunger define who we are.

To write about food is to write about our evolution, our feelings, and our deepest identity, or as some might say, our soul.

Below are seven food writing prompts to investigate your food memories.

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1. Set a scene in a kitchen from long ago evoking a meal you cooked, shared, or tasted. (Florence, 1972)
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2. Write about a a visit to a market you find irresistible. Describe colors, sounds, flavors, texture, people, atmosphere, and the art of choosing produce. (Paris market, Rue Mouffetard)

 

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3. Tonight you may dine anywhere in the world and eat anything you wish. Where will you go, with whom, and what will you eat? Describe the food, setting, atmosphere, and company of your ideal dinner out.(Ikaria, GR)
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4. Recall the flavor of a food freshly picked, baked, or caught, and eaten on the spot. Use concrete sense details in your description.
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5. Write about preparing and eating a food you love but that not everyone does. Include a recipe and say why it appeals to you so much.
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6.Write about a laborious dish you prepare only for special occasions.
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7. Write about tasting wine in a special place. Describe the atmosphere, company, and flavor of the wine.  (Methoni, GR)

 

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For more food and travel writing prompts, please see my craft of writing book: The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook