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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Celebrating Judy Witts Francini’s Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen

Judy Witts Francini begins her seminal cookbook Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen   

with advice from her mother-in-law:  “Spend more time shopping and less time cooking” — to emphasize the rule observed by great cooks everywhere: the secret of delectable food lies in the careful selection of the freshest ingredients.  This collection of  classic Tuscan dishes ranges from the rustic and humble (panzanella  or pappa al pomodoro) to the exotic  (cinghiale in dolceforte — i.e. wild boar with chocolate sauce– or cacciucco, the Tuscan fish soup made with red wine)  simply explained  with easy- to-follow instructions, all calibrated for the American kitchen. From favorite antipastos like chicken liver crostini and fettunta (known in Rome as bruschetta) to luscious desserts like pannacotta and torta della nonna, you will learn to prepare and serve delicious, authentic Tuscan meals delighting friends and family, and yourself, of course.  This book offers a no-nonsense and no fuss crash course in the very basics of Tuscan eating.

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The freshest produce makes for the most delectable meals

In her short introduction, the author tells us that she has received many of these recipes from members of her Italian family, passed down from mothers and aunts, ordinary housewives and professional cooks.  Cookbooks are a rarity in most Italian homes, except for an occasional stained sheaf of scribbled notes, held together with paperclips or rubberbands. Italian cooks tend to dispense with precise measurements or cooking times when preparing daily meals.  “Quanto basta,” is the norm – as much or as long as it takes. Butter is often measured  in quantities such as “a walnut,”  rice by handfuls, liquid by fingers or glassfuls.  Judy Witts Francini makes it easier for you to follow by translating this oral tradition into American measurements.  Once you get the hang of it though, you’ll see these recipes lend themselves to the “ad occhio” approach –gauging measures and proportions  by eye, instinct, and taste. At that point, she suggests, you will find that an old yoghurt container will serve as a measuring cup.

Other recipes in this collection were instead “picked up” at markets and shops, through conversations with butchers or fishmongers, or simply plucked out of the air, for wherever  you go in Italy, recipes are the focus of animated discussions. Not only while waiting your turn to be served by the salumaio or baker, or while your anchovies are being filleted or your cuttlefish cleaned, but also while riding on the bus or waiting in line at the bank or the post office,  all around you recipes and cooking methods are compared, often between strangers. It’s illuminating to eavesdrop on such exchanges —  which can take the form of challenges, contests, barters, or selfless acts of sharing. Perhaps this is a second meaning to her mother-in-law’s advice, for if you keep your ears open as you go about your shopping, you can acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of Italian cuisine.

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Keep your ears open while out shopping to pick up cooking tips and recipes!

In addition, the author provides a list of basic ingredients, most of which are easily found at your supermarket – with the exception of the wild boar, for which a good cut of beef might substitute.  Admittedly, the requirement for  vine-ripened tomatoes might be more difficult to satisfy these days, even in some areas of Tuscany, unless you grow your own.  Also enlightening is her explanation of a typical day in Tuscany with an hourly breakdown from the gastronomical point of view. Alas, here too, changes have occurred over the last decade, especially in urban settings, where lunch is no longer a family meal on weekdays.

Judy Witts Francini writes with authority, simplicity, and verve – and this reader wished she had provided a little bit more about herself, her life,  the people and places connected to these recipes – which I am sure would make for fascinating reading.  But that’s not what she is interested in –writing about herself. She is really focused on the task at hand: transmitting the basics of Tuscan cuisine.  On that point, she wisely and generously advises: “The first time you try a recipe, it is new. The second time, you correct it. The third time you make it, it is yours.” In other words,  cherished recipes are not something locked in a box possessed by exclusive owners, but particles in a great stream belonging to all.

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Magic Library of Bomarzo’s Test Kitchen

Judy Witts Francini has gone on to publish other books, maintains a website dedicated to Italian cuisine http://divinacucina.com/  and has a youtube channel providing excellent videos on specific techniques. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL7yncVso5NG8mDB7ObGVfKvQ1lL_ps8kx

She organizes cooking classes and gastronomical tours in Italy.

Secrets from My Tuscan Kitchen was recently made available at reduced price on amazon kindle to celebrate the tenth anniversary of its first publication.

For more cookbook reviews by Linda Lappin, see her Review of Prospero’s Kitchen, Island Cooking of Greece, by Diana Farr Louis and June Marino 

and  Review of Cucina Povera: Tuscan Peasant Cooking by Pamela Sheldon Johns both appearing in Alimentum Literary Journal.

For a guide to place, travel, and food writing, see Lappin’s prize-winning  craft of writing book: The Soul of Place – A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci.

For more on Tuscan cuisine by Linda Lappin, see Pane & Pecorino: Living the Simple Life in Tuscany @ Travelers Tales

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