Clue: They're strangely beautiful, like a tropical flower; bland and yet somewhat exotic in taste; and a bitch to clean and prepare with their thorny and tough outter leaves and inner choke. When I was a kid, my family were the only people I knew who ate them, always stuffed with breadcrumbs and covered in tomato sauce. My friends gaped at them in awe demanding to know just what they were while I scraped the stuffing and soft layer from each leaf with my front teeth to reach that creamy concentrated burst of flavor buried in the heart. Yeah, they mighta choked Artie but, like Stymie, they weren't gonna choke me.
Give up? If you guessed artichokes, you were right. Even though we always ate them the same way, I loved artichokes then and I love them more now and I have my life in Italy to thank for that.
In the motherland, artichokes are not just artichokes - they're "carciofi," pronounced car-choe-fee, a word that sounds just like what they might do if the preparer doesn't take care. But there's nary a choke in those equisite carciofi, regardless of whether they're Roman or Jerusalem. When I saw Italian artichokes for the first time, my husband and I were visiting his aunt in Sicily and there were a bunch of them, "un mazzetto," propped in a bucket of water on her terrazzo, long-stemmed and full flowered, like peonies about to bloom. Aside from their "cuter" look, they were softer than the artichokes I was used to - those outter leaves weren't so thick, tough or thorny in Italy so although cleaning them was time consuming and a "bitch" as I lovingly say, the process was precise, helping to create a pretty perfect dish that was always worth the work. And once that part of the preparation was complete, the rest was usually a piece of cake because in Italy, carciofi are made in so many ways, each one more delicious than the next, far exceeding our traditional stuffed and sauced variety.
The first kind of carciofi I made were Roman style which I learned, among other things, in the Regional Italian Cooking Class, Lazio Region, I took through the American Women's Club of Rome. These classes met once a week for the entire day, a different region for each class spanning over a couple of months for the northern regions, a couple of months for the south, and it was quite an excursion! On cooking days, I'd put my kids on the school bus and my friend would borrow my husband's BMW, (I couldn't drive stick), to drive us the 45-60 minutes north of Rome to Lake Bracciano. The ride would often include us crying over the heart wrenching Italian music playing on the radio,even if we didn't understand all the words, stopping along the side of the road to buy "cheap" porcini or making a detour for an always perfect cappuccino in a ceramic cup! We didn't dilly dally much though because we were anxious meet with the other students and instructors to learn about the history of the week's particular region, follow the recipes to work in teams preparing various specialties and then spending the rest of the day sitting at a beautifully set table eating the dishes we cooked, sampling the wines of the region for each course, while surrounded by the beautiful scenery and distinct smells of the food, the lake around the restaurant, and Italy in general. No matter what you think, Italy does smell differently from New York and every once in a while, I get a whiff of Rome as I stroll up Fifth Ave. that makes me want to just stand perfectly still while my mind wanders back 15 years...
But back to the artichokes, thanks to the Lake Bracciano cooking classes, cleaning artichokes became a science to me that I use to this day:
- take off the tough, dark, outter leaves (and there weren't many),
- cut the top of the artichoke to discard the thorny tips and the stem, discarding the 1/4" at the end of the stem.
- Pull the artichoke open and use a demitasse spoon to remove the choke, (again, not much there)
- rub the cut leaves and the base with a lemon and put both the artichoke and cut stem into a pot with acidulated water while cleaning the rest of the artichokes.
Well, I have 6 artichokes waiting to be cleaned and cooked, a $3.00 investment. I'm doing them Roman style.
Carciofi alla Romana
2 1/2" slices of round pancetta
3 cloves of garlic minced
2 T. chopped mint
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
Salt and Pepper
Water to almost cover
Prepare the artichokes as I now do regularly, described above.
Slice the pancetta and cut it crosswise to make small cubes
Randomly stuff the pancetta into the artichoke leaves, pulling the artichoke open. Do the same with the chopped garlic and mint.
Put the artichokes into a pot large enough to hold all four in an upright position. When the stem is removed, the artichokes should remain flat in the pot. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, drizzle olive oil and wine over the artichokes and fill water halfway up the artichokes. Cover and let boil; then lower heat and cook till tender, adding more water if needed.
NOTE: Cut the artichokes into quarters and sautee in a frying pan with all the same ingredients, replacing the mint with parsley. While simmering, add the prepackaged cream sauce, panna, found in Italian specialty shops and deli's. Toss this sauce with pasta.