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Artichokes (Carciofi): Hearts, Flowers, Thorns & All

The artichoke is a versatile and delicious vegetable, the bud of a giant flower. Prized in Italy, where it came to popular favor from the tables of the Medici, the artichoke can be served as an antipasto, first course, main course or side dish - it just takes a few moment to prepare it first. Learn about the history of these many-layered vegetables, get classic recipe ideas, and find out how to keep fresh artichokes from turning dark before you cook them.

By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti

basket of green artichokesThe artichoke is like one of those familiar fairy-tale characters—a prickly, forbidding-looking creature that actually conceals an extraordinary heart. This odd, spiky gift from nature is the surprising fruit of a plant bearing gorgeous purple-blue blossoms. Like the frog that turns into a prince, the artichoke was feared and shunned for centuries until it was embraced by royalty and ultimately accepted by the masses. And even though today, the carciofo, as it’s called in Italian, is widely appreciated in many culinary traditions, for the uninitiated, it can still be a slightly daunting vegetable.

Carciofi (plural form) have been studied by some, and devoured by millions in the last thousand years. Curiously, the artichoke and asparagus have a lot in common. Besides their shared Mediterranean origin, both were appreciated and studied by the early Latin botanists over 2000 years ago for their beneficial health properties. There were periods of great culinary interest in both these vegetables until they fell out of favor during the Middle Ages due to fear and superstition—then both were rediscovered in the late Renaissance. Both were unknown in America until they were brought over from Europe—the artichoke not arriving until the 19th century. Initially, asparagus and artichokes were considered too delicate and expensive for mass consumption, but today these vegetables are popular around the world. In Italy, carciofi are greatly appreciated in a variety of forms by gourmands—or bocche fini (literally “fine mouths”) as they are called in Italy—from delicate risotto or pasta sauces to beautifully preserved artichoke hearts.

purple artichokesCynara cardunculus, which is the Latin term for artichoke, has ambiguous origins. It probably originated in North Africa or Egypt, and then with the advent of sea trade, it soon arrived on the south Mediterranean shores. In Sicily, it was cultivated during the Greek colonization of southern Italy (referred to as the Magna Grecia) 2800 years ago. Eventually, the artichoke found its way to the aristocratic tables of the Medici family, the ruling dynasty of Florence in the early Renaissance, and then quickly became one of favorite delicacies in Europe. From the Italian royal courts, it soon began to appear in stately banquets in Paris, Vienna and London. The unlikely success of this off-putting vegetable was no doubt due to its incredible heart—the soft, smooth, slightly sweet, hidden core. Artichoke hearts have been used in various preparations for centuries—such as, braised with herbs, or cooked in broth, and served with butter or olive oil and lemon.

Italy is the world’s first producer of carciofi and many varieties are cultivated here. Artichokes are basically divided in three groups and two sizes: green, purple and the spinoso (thorny); the first two groups exist in medium and large sizes. Some excellent varieties in Italy are: Romanesco or Cimaroli (green with a purple tone) from Rome which are very popular; Violetto di Provenza in Liguria and Violetto di Toscana (both purple); and the Carciofo spinoso d'Albenga which have thorny leaves, but are very palatable. Some cultivars ripen in the spring, which make carciofi dishes particularly appealing this time of year; others ripen later in the summer and early autumn. In the US, California is the land of the artichoke—many cultivars are grown in the “Golden State,” where there is a great demand and appreciation for this vegetable. The nutritional benefits of artichokes are recognized worldwide—rich in magnesium, potassium, folate and vitamin C, artichokes do not contain fat or cholesterol and are a great source of fiber.

artichoke heartWhen picking out artichokes, look for the heavy ones with firm stems and make sure the tips of the leaves are not brown—also, the leaves should not be open or loose. If you’re preparing artichokes for a pasta or risotto dish, it is necessary to expose the heart and remove the inedible fibers before cooking. Learning how to prepare carciofi takes just a little practice; experienced cooks and artichoke devotees are able to clean an artichoke in a matter of seconds. Start by cutting off the top—about one third of the way down—since the top leaves are usually too tough and tasteless to save. (If you hate the idea of throwing away any part of the vegetable, you can always use the outer leaves—which can be frozen, by the way—as part of a stock for a vegetarian risotto, minestrone or vegetable soup.) Next, peel off the leaves closest to the stem and proceed until you reach those tender, smaller leaves with a yellowish-green and purple color—then simply cut the vegetable in two halves and remove the triangle of fibers that is in the middle. Your carciofi are now ready to be cooked according to your recipe—with just a few helpful hints: Soak the artichokes in water with lemon (after cutting and trimming) for half an hour or so to avoid oxidation (darkening). Also, avoid cooking them in aluminum or iron pans as these will discolor the carciofi; if possible, use stainless steel instead.

If you want to boil carciofi and eat them as many Italians love to do—dipping each leaf in a little vinaigrette and scraping off the “meat” with your teeth, until you get to the tender cuore di carciofo (artichoke heart)—the preparation is simple. All you need to do is remove the outer leaves at the bottom and peel the stem before boiling. The artichokes will need to cook for 30 to 40 minutes, depending on their size. (Baby artichokes cook in about half that time.) This is a simple and healthy way to enjoy carciofi—just remember when you get to the heart, be sure to discard “the choke,” as the little fibers are called, by gently scooping them out with a pointed teaspoon.

grilled artichokesIn Italy, carciofi are served in a myriad of forms and preparations—fried, baked, braised, boiled and also used in frittatas. Sometimes the same recipe can be served as an antipasto, a side dish (called a “contorno” in Italian) or as a first course (the “primo”)—for example, Carciofi al forno con patate, which is a wonderful combination of roasted artichokes and potatoes. Artichokes marry well with roasted meat or fish; they are also used as a main ingredient in pasta sauces and risotti. They can also be served as a main course (the “secondo”)—such as, Carciofi gratinati (baked artichokes with melted cheese and breadcrumbs), which is a typical dish in many parts of the central southern regions of Italy. Carciofi are often combined with other ingredients like cheese, ground meat and bĂ©chamel, and then baked in a sort of pasticcio (a delicious culinary pastiche). One of the most popular artichokes dishes comes from an old Roman Jewish recipe called Carciofi alla Giudea, in which the artichokes are deep fried and served with lemon.

The artichoke’s versatility and unique taste has garnered it an important

and well-deserved place in Italian regional cuisine. One of the magical aspects of the carciofo—contributing to its allure and accounting, at least in part, for its cult of devotees—is that somehow it makes all the food it accompanies taste better!

 

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