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.
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