30 March 2011

Gypsy Kitchens: Roman Artichokes

A lot of people asked us "what the hell are you going to do in Vatican City for two weeks?" Well, as you can probably tell, a huge part of our time here has been spent cooking. (Though, it's not like there has been a lack of sights to keep us occupied). We wanted to try our hand at as many of the dishes and utilize as many of the most common ingredients around here as possible. I would say that the most ubiquitous vegetable in Rome/Vatican City is the artichoke - which also happens to be one of the most intimidating.
We kept putting off artichoke night. It all just seemed so difficult, the trimming alone gave me the jitters. Steaming the whole thing and dunking its petals in some hollandaise was simply not an option. They're never served like that here! I wanted it to look and, hopefully, taste just like the ones I eat almost daily. Carciofi alla Romana. Artichokes you could eat whole. Artichokes you could just pick right up by the stem and bite the head (and heart) right off of.
When we visited the awesome Trionfale Market right outside the Vatican wall and saw carciofi for sale already trimmed up and ready to go (as shown above), we knew that it was time to take the plunge. All that was left for us to do was remove the chokes. We slammed the artichokes face down on the counter to loosen the petals a little and burrowed a hole down the center with our index fingers. (Be careful, some of those inner leaves are pretty sharp!) Merlin used a knife to scrape out the choke and I used a small spoon. I really wished we had our grapefruit spoons with the serrated edges - but, really, how often do those come in handy? It was quite the workout. At first, I was worried about all the tiny leaves that were falling out along with the furry choke bits. But when Merlin told me they'd been the ones that had attacked my finger, I was glad to see them go. As was my esophagus.
It would have been much simpler if we'd just split them all in half like this, but I really wanted to stay true to the Romanesque way of doing things. Many recipes suggest coating them with lemon juice or putting them in an ice bath after your initial trim to prevent discoloration. The man at the market hadn't done so, but we thought the purple discoloration was just lovely.
When all eight artichokes were cleaned up, we fit them snugly into a pot with some bay leaves, a half a bottle of white wine, three lemon halves and enough water to cover them. Then, we turned on the heat, waited until it hit a boil and then turned it down to cover and simmer for about 35 minutes.
While they cooked, I made a sauce of olive oil, lemon juice, fresh mint, garlic, salt and pepper. I probably should have gone with a little less lemon, as the halves in the cooking liquid did more infusing than I thought they would. Still, our carciofi alla romana were absolutely delicious. The hearts were perfectly softened and if you've never had the stems before, they also have that great creamy artichoke flavor. I think they were a little better the next day- making for an excellent cold, midday snack.

I would love to tell you how to trim an artichoke, but being as I didn't do it myself, I don't feel like I am the right person to explain it. To be honest, I'm still pretty intimidated by the process and have yet to work up the courage. But we're about to spend two weeks in San Marino (another microstate surrounded by Italy). So...

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