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Recipe: Carciofi alla Romana

Artichokes are an odd ingredient; you either love them or you hate them.  They make virtually all types of wine taste water-like or bitter.  They take an age to prepare and are not easy to cook well.  They’re pokey.  However, when prepared correctly and served to a prime audience, they are an absolute show-stopper!

Fresh off the farm-ichokes Fresh off the farm-ichokes

In America, we generally find only 1 kind of these thistles, the Globe artichoke.  However in Italy, most especially in Rome where these beauties are grown with reverence, the variety is slightly different.  To make Carciofi alla Romana (Roman style artichokes), you must use their specialty kind, which has edible chokes (the kind of hairy and spiky innards of the flower) and virtually no spines.  Or go with the Globes and accept that you’ll have to sacrifice the long, lovely stem and do a lot of trimming.  Either way, here’s my recipe for transforming these aggressive vegetables into a flavorful and nutrient rich appetizer or side dish.  Be prepared to fight for the last oil soaked morsel.

Ingredients

4 artichokes (preferably with a long stem attached ~ it denotes freshness)
1 lemon
2-4 cloves of garlic
1 bunch of mentuccia (if possible ~ if not substitute herbs below ~ )
~ 1/2 bunch of Italian parsley
~ 1/2 bunch of spearmint
A gluttonous amount of olive oil
1/2 cup of water
1/2 cup of white wine
salt and pepp

First, start with fresh, seasonal ingredients!  Artichokes are generally a spring vegetable, so this will not go with your Thanksgiving dinner plans.  Start by preparing a bowl of acidulated (acid) water to prevent the veggies from turning brown.  Cut a lemon and squeeze and leave one half in a bowl of water, then use the other half and rub it all over your hands to prevent them from staining!  Paper cuts are not encouraged during this process.

Lemony hands and water Lemony hands and water

Now that you’re all set up, snap off the majority of the outer leaves from your artichoke, which are tough and will ruin your initial bites should you leave too many of them on.  Wait until the base of the choke begins becoming white, that’s when you’ve reached an appropriate point to use a pairing knife and start to cut around the base and remainder of the leaves.  It’s going to look a bit like a rose when you’re done, that’s how much trimming I’m talking about.  Afterwards, use a serrated knife to cut off the tops, so you’re left with a lovingly shorn flower of fiber. 

Before: a work of art Before: Nature’s work of art

The process: trim a lot. I mean a LOT. The process: trim a lot. I mean a LOT.

After: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder After: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder

Now, delicately open the petals and start to get into the core of the choke.  With Italian carciofi, you can leave this part as is, but with American artichokes, the center is full of tough and brittle little flavor haters, so you’re gonna get a spoon and scoop all of the weird little white and purple hairs out of there. Be careful to avoid going too hard and scooping out the heart.  Then, use a peeler and shave the stem and cut off the very bottom to keep everything fresh.  Now that it’s all shiny and ready to go, put it in your acid water and finish prepping the others.

Carciofi day spa Carciofi day spa

Now that your carciofi are all lounging in their lemon bath, prepare the dressing.  Finely dice some herbs and some garlic cloves (the number depends on your fear of vampires), then place them all a bowl to be bathed in their own bath of glorious olive oil and salt n’ peppa.  Here’s where things get cultural.  Rome has a beautiful and strange herb called mentuccia, which kind of tastes like spearmint with some woodsy oregano backbone and the bitterness of parsley.  This herb is extremely hard to find, even in Italy, where you generally can only seek it out it in the regions of Lazio and Campania (with Rome and Naples as their capitals, respectively).  At home, we used parsley exclusively, but now that I know the wonders of mentuccia, I’d probably go half spearmint and half parsley, but your herb mix is of extreme personal preference. 

Mentuccia: not quite mint, not quite tuccia. Mentuccia: not quite mint, not quite tuccia.

Ready for their closeup Ready for their closeup

Now that you have a bath of beautiful, oily, garlicky herbs, let’s get the party started.  One by one, take the artichokes out and lightly squeeze them upside down to rid them of excess water.  Give them a light bashing on the countertop to widen the base and allow for the sauce to distribute evenly.  We’re not getting overly aggressive here, it’s just a little foreplay to loosen everything up.  Place the artichoke in the marinade and cover it with goodness, making sure to spoon some into the flower itself and squish an abundance of herbs into the base of the flower, where you spooned out the chokes earlier.  Place it upside down in a small pot and follow suit with the remaining artichokes. 

We’re almost done!  The difficulty of this recipe is really the prepping of the carciofi, so now it’s easy breezy.  If you had stems on the artichokes but they’re too tall to put the lid on the pot, cut them off and put them in as well.  We want these carciofi crowded in the base of the pot.  Think of the backseat on a family road trip, no extra room, people!  If you find there’s a little too much space for those buggers to start throwing elbows, add a couple cleaned and halved small potatoes, that’ll teach ‘em. Add what remains of that glorious oil and pour it on top of everything. 

Ready Freddie! Ready Freddie!

Now add equal parts of white wine and water, a nice hefty splash will do.  All of this liquid should arrive a little above halfway up the artichoke, we’re braising, not boiling.  Cover it and turn the heat up high to get the mixture boiling.  Once hot and bubbly, turn the heat down to medium low and let everything simmer for about 45 minutes, maybe checking once around the 30 minute mark to rotate your potatoes, if included.

Potatoes were included. Potatoes were included.

Once your fork goes into the artichoke base with no resistance, put the lid back on and turn off the heat and let everything relax for about another hour.  You do not want to eat these piping hot and they need a little time to soak up the excess moisture after their ordeal.  Serve warm as an app with some crusty bread or as an amazing side to your main dish.  However, there is no limit to the recipes of wonder you can achieve with cooked artichokes: sliced and mixed into pasta with grated pecorino cheese, chunkily flipped into a frittata, or as a topping to a homemade pizza or bruschetta!  When you can’t make it to Rome, try these Carciofi alla Romana for an easy and delicious alternative to a taste of a Mediterranean vacation.  Italian men on Vespas not included.

Not the prettiest but 100% the tastiest Carciofi alla Romana! Not the prettiest but 100% the tastiest Carciofi alla Romana!

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