You may not believe that a kiss will turn an ugly toad into a handsome prince, but it can be proven that the right touch can turn an artichoke into a most manageable vegetable, far more versatile than you have known until now.
An artichoke is not what it appears to be. Under those thorny scales there is the prince of vegetables. All it waits for, to emerge and sparkle, is a loving hand that can skillfully rid of its inconveniently rough exterior.
The average American thinks that fresh artichokes can only be boiled or steamed to the point of grayness in taste and color. This is not due just to lack of creativity on the part of the American cook. Until a few years ago there was not much else you could do with the fresh artichokes offered at local produce counters.
An artichoke lover, possessed by the overwhelming desire of sinking his teeth into an artichoke dish, could only resort to commercially packaged products.
For the last 20 years I have stubbornly clung to the food I ate growing up in Sicily, but so many vegetables here lack the characteristics of Sicilian vegetables, making the reproduction of some dishes a challenge. Artichokes have been my toughest antagonists, tougher than eggplants.
I still remember my first American artichoke, so tough and unyielding that it practically brought me to tears, and destroyed the dream of tenderness and lightness for the side dish I had planned.
Finally, after some years, American artichoke growers saw the light and decided the artichoke, like all flowers, should be picked before full bloom. Of many varieties of artichoke plants, the ideal are those that produce large flowers when still young (getting a small artichoke doesn't always mean tha tis young and tender.)
Now that usable artichokes are available, boiling must be considered the easy way out. Whatever taste and consistentency is left by the boiling process is promptly erased by dipping the artichoke in one of the following things:vinaigrette sauce, ketchup (yes, it is done) or melted butter.
Dipping artichokes in ketchup is not as objectionable as dipping them in multed butter. Artichokes deserve olive oil and so does the human body, to keep the cholesterol down and the digestive tract healthy -- the last belief may not have medical backing, but it is part of the Sicilian ceremony, no butter with seafood, nor with fish, etc.
Anyone who likes artichokes in spite of and notwith-
ART 2,COPY,SY,ACT,COPY,,,standing the process described above, and who has yet to discover what an artichoke is really like unspoiled by prolonged cooking, will have a hard time believing the ways that fresh artichokes can be eaten. Taken by the forkful, mixed with many other fish, their taste is a delicate balance of faint bitterness and sweetness, carried by a nutty consistency.
The first step to take in this discovery is to select good artichokes -- they should have very few dark blemishes, and the scales should squeak when squeezed. Prying the fourth or fifth row of scales, the next should be pale green two-thirds of the way up. There is also the "fingernail" test, in which a fingernail should easily leave an imprint in thestem (if anyone is caught in a store doing it, I will deny suggesting such a thing).
The second step is to start pulling off the scales and cleaning the articoke following the directions below, a process that will require some patience and practice before mastering. One must also overcome the feeling that too much of the artichoke is being thrown away. Anyone who feels bad about wasting the insignificant amount htat can be scraped from the inner part of even the toughest discarded scales can set them aside for boiling -- or feeding a goat.
The fresher the artichoke, the more discoloring power it will have. Rubbing the cut surface of a halved lemon on the vegetable and on the fingers will minimize the problem as the cleaning process goes on. Of the outer layers of scales, the very bottom of their inner part where they are attached is edible.
Keeping that in mind, snap off the scales, progressively leaving a little more of each (that is, the part lightest in color) attached. After the first two or three rows, scales should get much ligther and more tender; keep snapping them just below the dark stringy part. As soon as the scales are a pale green almost all the way up to the tip, cut off the rest of the tips as much as a third of the way down.
The stem of the artichoke is edible and should be removed only if the recipe calls for standing up whole artichokes. In that case the stem can be cooked on the side.
Once the artichoke tip is cut off, proceed to peel away the fibrous outer layer of the stem and of the base of the scales that have been snapped off. At this point the artichoke is ready to be used for any recipe, choke and inner leaf ends to be removed in different ways, dictated by the final shape in which you want the artichoke to be. For recipes requesting the artichoke whole, pry the outer layers of scales away from the core scales, which will still be bearing spines. Loosen up the core scales with a small knife blade, rotating the blade around the scales, then pull them out. Hollow out the bottom cup, scooping the choke with a teaspoon inserted though the opening created by having pulled the core scales.
For recipes requesting the artichoke in wedges, quarter the artichoke, from the stem down. Bend the small inner scales still bearing spines toward the choke, using the blade of a very sharp knife, and cut them off -- this should be done so that most of the scales remain attached to the artichoke. If this process is hard to picture, just put off the scales, but do not complain about waste.
Remove the choke with the knife tip. Just in case you have trouble identifying the choke, it looks like fuzz packed together, and it has different degrees of hardness, from goose down to barbed wire. Tender artichokes contain the soft fuzz, which actually could be eaten.
To minimize discoloration, submerge the artichokes, after they are cut, in water acidulated with lemon juice -- the juice of two lemons to 8 cups of water. Before soaking the artichokes, check the recipe: For some recipes water is undesirable, while some recipes need the water trapped between the scales for the cooking process.
The recipes that follow were inspired by my grandmother Severina's recipes. She was an artichoke lover. The recipes are very old, and with the exception of the first -- Carciofi Saltati In Padella -- have fallen into oblivion.
CARCIOFI SALTATI IN PADELLA (Sauteed artichokes) (6 servings as a side vegetable or makes 3/4 pounds as a pasta topping) 8 large artichokes Juice of 2 lemons 6 cloves garlic, cut in large pieces Olive oil 2 cups parsley, loosely packed leaves, chopped finely 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 to 1 teaspoon finely ground black pepper
Clean the artichokes, slice into 1/3-inch thick wedges and submerge them in acidulated water (a mixture of juice of 2 lemons and 8 cups water), then drain. Add 3 garlic cloves and 1/4-inch layer of oil of each of 2 large skillets (no uncoated cast iron). Heat til the garlic gets lightly aromatic and colored, then add the artichoke pieces, dividing them between the 2 skillets, and cook over high heat. Stir for a couple of minutes, reduce the heat to medium low, ad 1/2 cup hot water to each skillet, cover, and cook 5 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally and checking the consistency. Very tender artichokes will require the minimum amount of cooking time, which will increase proportionally with the hardness of the artichokes and could be more than 10 minutes.
When a skewer inserted in the solid part of an artichoke wedge encounters moderate resistance, or when the edge of a fork will cut it without too much pressure, uncover the skillets, increase the heat to high, and let the liquid reduce until the vegetable sizzles. Stir very often, to prevent ART 3,COPY,SY,ACT,COPY,,,scorching. Turn the heat off, add the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
If the artichokes are going to be served as pasta topping, cook the pasta in plenty of well-salted water, at a rolling boil, until al dente. Run some tap water in the pot before draining to minimize softening and sticking of pasta due to steam, and reserve some of the water drained. Toss the pasta immediately with the artichokes; if pasta sticks, toss it with a spoonful or two of the reserved water, and serve.
For the pasta, use trenette (linguine) or spaghetti if you can roll pasta onto a fork without losing the vegetable topping; otherwise use rotini. CARCIOFI PICCANTI (Savory artichokes) (6 servings) 4 large artichokes Juice of 2 lemons Olive oil 2 cups drained tomato sauce made with parsley, (see recipe below, do not strain) 1 teaspoon oregano 1/4 teaspoon salt 3 1/2-ounce can sardines, packed in oil, well drained, deboned (do not used smoked sardines) 1/2 cup shredded provolone, preferably imported 1/2 pound mozzarella, cut in thin slices
Clean the artichokes and cut into 1/4-inch wedges, submerge into acidulated water (a mixture of juice of 2 lemons and 8 cups water), and drain.
Coat well with oil a baking dish that will accommodate the artichokes, plus the other ingredients, in 2 layers. Mix the tomato sauce with the oregano and the salt. Spread 1/3 of the tomato sauce on the bottom of the dish and cover with half of the artichoke wedges. Top that by successively spreading the sardines, half of the provolone and mozzarella, another third of the tomato sauce, the rest of the artichokes, the remaining cheeses and the final third of the tomato sauce.
Bake at 375 for 35 to 40 minutes; serve hot. If the artichokes are not tender, dip them in a pot of boiling water, and cook briefly, till quite al dente. Drain well. SALSA DI POMODORE PASSATA (Strained Tomato Sauce) (Makes about 2 cups) 3 cups tomatoes (choose good quality, firm, canned tomatoes) 1/2 cup olive oil or to taste 1/2 onion, minced 2 cloves garlic, skins on, lightly crushed 1 teaspoon salt 1 to 2 teaspoons honey See ARTICHOKES, E16, Col. 1 ART 4/SY,COPY,SY,ACT,COPY,,,Any, or all of the following herbs (parsley, basil, rosemary, sage, oregano, sorrel), preferably fresh, a few leaves of each; increase quantity of leaves as you decrease number of different herbs used
Drain tomatoes, reserving their juice, remove the seeds and chop tomatoes. Strain juice and set aside. Cook the oil, onion and garlic in a medium-size pan until aromatic, then mash the garlic, discarding the peel. With heat on high, add tomatoes, salt and 1 teaspoon honey, stir, and cook uncovered, stirring seldom, until tomatoes sizzle.
Add the reserved juice and herbs, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, place a cover on the pan with a crack open, and cook about 15 minutes, stirring seldom. Taste, and if you find the sauce unpleasantly tart, add the remaining teaspoon of honey and/or a little more salt.
Put the sauce through a strainer, using the largest hole attachment. The sauce may be used unstrained as well.
CARCIOFI ALLA MANDORLA (8 servings) 8 large artichokes Juice of 1 lemon 4 tablespoons olive oil 1 teaspoon salt 1 tablespoon flour, unbleached 2 teaspoons sugar 2/3 cup almonds, blanched, and ground very finely Freshly ground black pepper to taste Clean the artichokes, cut each i half, lengthwise, remove choke and thorny tips of inner scales. Beat the lemon juice with 1 cup water, olive oil and salt, then divide between 2 skillets with the artichoke halves fitting snugly in one layer. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on low heat for about 20 minutes, or until al dente (test with skewer -- inserting it should meet moderate resistane).
Arrange the artichokes, cut surface up, in a heatproof dish, in one layer, cover, keep warm. Transfer the pan drippings to one pan, mix the flour with the sugar in the empty pan, and stir in some of the drippings, over medium-low heat,until it thickens. Turn off the heat, stir in the almonds. Spoon the sauce over the artichoke halves, serve sprinkled with black pepper. Artichokes can be also served room temperature.
CARCIOFI IMBOTTITE (Stuffed artichokes) (8 servings) 8 large artichokes Olive oil 8 small sprigs parsley 8 cloves garlic, peeled, halved 1/2 cup water Juice of 1 lemon 1/2 teaspoon salt FOR THE FILLING: 1/2 cup almonds, skins on, toasted, and ground finely 1 tablespoon pine nuts 1 tablespoon currants 10 pitted black olives, preferably Sicilian or Greek, chopped 8 flat anchovy fillets, packed in olive oil, well drained and mashed 1/2 cup bread crumbs Clean the artichokes, cut off the stem very close to the bottom, reserve the stem for later use (or cook along with the artichokes as a good way to test for doneness). Remove the inner scales, scoop out choke. Loosen up the scales gently.
Add 1/4-inch layer of oil to an overproof pan in which the artichokes fit closely together, stem side down. Inside each place a sprig of parsley and 2 garlic halves. Beat together with a fork, 1/2 cup of water, a couple tablespoons olive oil, lemon juice and the salt, then trickle it over the artichokes between the scales.
Cook the artichokes covered, over low heat for about half an hour, or luntil pleasantly crisp. To check for doneness, a skewer inserted through the bottom part should encounter moderate resistance. Also taste a scale; if it is too hard after 30 minutes of cooking, and still not done even though the bottom part is, turn the artichokes, leaf side down (adding 1/2 cup water if necessary), cover and cook until done.
ARTICHOKES/SY,COPY,SY,ACT,COPY,,,As soon as the artichokes have reached an even and pleasantly crisp stage, uncover, turn the heat up and, artichoke bottoms down, reduce the liquid if any. Mix the filling ingredients thoroughly, divide among the artickokes between the scales, place in a 425-degree over for 5 minutes, then serve hot or room temperature.
To toast the almonds and bread crumbs for the filling: toss in a heavy cast-iron skillet, with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, stir over medium heat, constantly, until almonds crackle and bread crumbs are a golden color. Remove from pan immeditely. Grind almonds when cool.
CARCIOFI CON SARDE A PASTICCIO (Baked Artichokes with Sardines) (8 servings) This recipe, like most artichoke recipes I have, is from my grandmother Severina's notes. The recipe calls for fresh sardines, deboned and butterfield. I have substituted smelts, and canned sardines. I suspect nobody would be willing to debone and butterfly smelts, therefore I suggest canned sardines. 6 large artichokes Juice of 2 lemons plus 1/4 cup fresh lemon juice Olive oil 1 cup almonds, toasted (skins on), ground finely 3/4 cup bread crumbs, toasted 8 anchovy fillets, flat, packed in oil, well drained, mashed 1/2 cup parsley, loosely packed leaves, cut finely 1/2 to 1 teaspoon salt 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper 1 pound sardines, canned in water or oil (do not use smoked sardines), bones removed (If you can find fresh sardines, and have the skill and the patience to debone and butterfly them use them.) 2 tablespoons pine nuts 2 tablespoons currants Bay leaves to taste Clean the artichokes, slice into 1/4-inch wedges, soak in acidulated water (a mixture of juice of 2 lemons and 8 cups water) and drain. Mix artichokes with 1/4 cup lemon juice.
Use a baking dish that will hold the artichokes in 3 layers, alternating with the other ingredients and coat it well with olive oil. Mix almonds, bread crumbs, anchovies, parsley, salt (if using canned sardines use the lowest amounts of salt recipe calls for) and pepper, and sprinkle some on the bottom of the pan, keeping enough for 3 more layers. Then alternate 3 layers each of artichokes (which have been mixed with the lemon juice), sardines, and bread crumb-almond mixture ending with crumb mixture, and sprinkling pine nuts and currants in between. Arrange a few bay leaves on top, cover loosely with foil, and bake in 350-degree oven for 1 hour.
CARNE E CARCIOFI (Beef and artichokes) (8 to 10 servings) Olive oil 2 pounds beef, very lean loin, cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes 6 large artichokes, cleaned and sliced into 1/4-inch wedges 1/2 pound pearl onions* 1 pound mildly hot or regular bell peppers (green, red, yellow, a combination of any or all) 1 small dry hot red chili 1/2 to 3/4 cup tomato juice 1 teaspoon salt or to taste Heat a generous layer of oil (close to 1/4 inch) in 2 very large skillets. With heat on high, add to each skillet equal amounts of beef, artichokes, onions and peppers (the chili cut in very small pieces, the other peppers in 1/2-inch strips). Stir until well coated with oil, cook for about 5 minutes, stirring only a few times, as the meat should be browned lightly.
Divide the tomato juice and salt between the pans. Stir and cook over high heat a few more minutes.
If artichokes are not tender, they should be cooked separately beforehand. To a large skillet with a thin layer of oil over low heat, add the artichokes, stir, add 1/2 cup of water, cover and cook till al dente (pleasantly crisp). Uncover, let liquid reduce over high heat, add to the other ingredients after they cooked 5 minutes.
*Frozen onions are acceptable; dip them in plenty of boiling water, keep on very high heat until defrosted, and drain.