CARCIOFI (Artichokes and how to clean them and prepare them for cooking)

Last time I was in Sicily in winter  I we saw masses of artichokes everywhere – in markets, growing in fields, sold by the roadside from the back of utes, in restaurants, and in the homes of relatives.


When my family first came to Australia, we used to notice that some Italians collected wild artichokes to eat (in Australia they are known as thistles). There were no artichokes for sale for at least a decade so they collected the buds and stripped off all leaves. Only the bases were stuffed or preserved in oil.

Artichokes are now more readily available in Australia and the quality seems to be getting better. I am now more able to find artichokes that feel crisp and dense, with a tightly clenched shape and petals that will snap off crisply when bent back. I have generally found that the purplish coloured ones to be more fibrous and I prefer the green coloured ones that look like roses.

Artichokes have been around for a long time. The Romans called the artichoke cynara, the Arabs al kharsciuf, (this sounds more like the Italian carciofo).

Artichokes contain a chemical called cynarin and it is said that it stimulates the production of bile. This is why artichokes are often used as the basis of digestivi (drinks that aid the digestion – a vital issue among Italians. There are those that prepare the stomach before food (aperitivi) and those drunk after a meal (amari, literally translated as ‘bitters’).


Many will be familiar with Cynar, the Italian artichoke-based alcoholic aperitivo manufactured by Campari in Milan. The are many amari manufactured all over Italy, but Averna, the amaro siciliano is a specialty from Caltanissetta (which is close to the centre of Sicily) and is a real indulgence.

Preparing artichokes for cooking
Artichokes in Sicily are sold with long stalks often up to 1 metre in length – do not ever discard the stalks. The stalks are particularly wonderful in risotti (plural of risotto) and braises made with artichoke. Trim the stalk with a small sharp knife to pull away the tough, stringy outer skin (just like the strings of celery) and leave the stem attached to the artichoke. This will expose the light-coloured, centre portion, which is very flavourful and tender and much appreciated by Italians.

When trimming, to prevent discolouration, squeeze the juice of half a lemon into a big bowl of water and keep cleaned artichokes submerged in the mixture. This is referred to as acidulated water. Drain the artichokes by inverting them upside down for about 5 minutes when ready to stuff or cook. Alternatively rub the surfaces with a lemon.

Winter greens 1

Preparing artichokes for stuffing
Remove the stalk so that the artichoke will sit on its base in the saucepan. Clean the stalk and pull the tough outside leaves off the base one by one until you have reached the paler less fibrous centre. Then trim about 1cm across the top. Keep them in acidulated water as you work.

Turn the artichoke upside down and bang it on a hard surface and then gently ease the leaves apart to expose the heart. If you place the artichokes in warm water you will be able to ease apart the leaves more easily. I start by easing the outer leaves and working my way to the centre.

There may or may not have a fuzzy choke (it depends on the maturity of the plant). If there is, remove the choke with a teaspoon, inserting it into the centre and carefully turning it without snapping the sides of the choke.

Preparing carciofi Romana

Preparing the base of the artichoke
Those of you who have travelled to Italy would be familiar with the spectacle of men and women preparing artichokes at vegetable markets. They sit with their mound of artichokes, skilfully paring off all the leaves with very sharp kitchen knives.
(Photos of cleaned artichokes taken in the Campo dei Fiori market in December 2009, when I was last in Rome).
These are called fondi di carciofi – they are the bases of mature artichokes. The fondi can be stuffed, braised, sautéed, added to frittata – their intense flavour and meaty texture are a definite taste sensation.

At the end of the season, when the artichokes are large and past their prime, they are trimmed even further. In Australia, we have to do this ourselves. Pare off the leaves of a mature artichoke and just leave the base (no leaves) – it will look like a very shallow cup. The texture of the base will be covered with a pattern of small dots much like the eyes of flies (like a fine etching, delicate and quite beautiful).

There are many recipes for artichokes on my blog:

ARTICHOKES from the growers



CARCIOFI FARCITI (Stuffed artichokes: with meat and with olives and anchovies)

A QUICK PASTA DISH for Spring: asparagus, artichokes, peas

PASTA ALLA FAVORITA (Pasta with artichokes, broadbeans, peas alla favorita)




PESTO DI NOCI (Walnut pesto/ sauce for pasta)

I was discussing travelling in Italy and regional food (frequent topics of conversation) with an acquaintance, who told me that she and her daughter had really enjoyed travelling in Tuscany and had eaten a wonderful pasta dish with walnuts. She had no idea what it was; she had tried to work this out from recipe books but to no avail. She said that the sauce was very fragrant.

I think it must have been pesto di noci, very common in Liguria, home of pesto alla genovese (the one with pine nuts and basil).

I first ate this in Genova. My cousin Rosadele prepared this for me when I first visited her many years ago (to meet our respective, then husbands). Being autumn, she made this sauce to accompany agnolotti (pasta shaped like half moons/ hers were stuffed with ricotta and stracchino). She is a wonderful cook. Her mother, from Piedmont was also a very skilled cook, and between the two of them, there was always alchemy in their kitchens.

Although I promised this recipe to my acquaintance, I have been a little reluctant to post it in winter – it is made with fresh marjoram, and those of you who grow it and live in the colder states, will know that marjoram is dormant at this time of year. It hates hard winters and frost. However, if you have planted marjoram somewhere sheltered from the cold, and in a sunny location or even kept it indoors in a sunny spot, you may still have this herb. Taking one’s plant indoors is quite a common practice for people in England. My plant of marjoram, which was doing quite well on my balcony till about a month ago, now looks dead. I did check at The Queen Victoria Market this week to see if there were bunches of marjoram available, and there were.
Traditionally because it is a pesto, it is made with a mortar and pestle (see my recipe for Sicilian pesto), but I admit that with these ingredients a blender has worked well for me ( unlike basil which is likely to taste grassy if blended).

walnuts, 500g
marjoram and parsley, 4 tablespoons of each, chopped
ricotta, 250 g
extra virgin olive oil, ¾ cup
garlic, 1-2 cloves
water, 1 tablespoon
salt, to taste
butter or thick cream, 2 tablespoons
grated nutmeg, a little
pasta, 400-500g (trofie – Ligurian, traditional shape)

Blend walnuts, oil and garlic – add chopped herbs, salt and blend some more.
Add water and butter/ cream and pulse blender to the desired consistency.
Cook pasta.
Stir in the ricotta and nutmeg in the sauce.
Drain the pasta but reserve approx ½ cup of hot pasta water to stir into sauce just before serving (to warm the sauce).
Combine sauce with pasta and serve.

Grated parmigiano can be added – I prefer it without.

Do not get confused with oregano and marjoram (many do). The genus name for both is origanum. Marjoram (origanum majorana) is also called sweet marjoram or knotted marjoram. It has a softer leaf and stem, it is paler in colour, the flavour is milder, sweeter and it is very aromatic. Marjoram leaves are best when fresh.

Oregano is a very common herb in Sicily, but not marjoram – this herb is generally used only in the northern part of Italy.


Caper bushes are everywhere in Sicily, growing wild in small crevices on stone walls.

The flower is beautiful and delicate but unfortunately the bush I have photographed in Sicily was not in flower when I was there in December.

I can remember my father being very excited when he found some caper bushes growing in the crevices of the wall of a very old church called San Giusto in Trieste (the patron saint) – my father never imagined that capers could grow so far north. They grow well in countries around the Mediterranean – Cyprus, Turkey, Greece.

I prefer to use capers preserved in rock salt rather than in brine – they taste like unadulterated capers rather than capers in vinegar. Salted capers need to be thoroughly rinsed, then soaked for about 30 minutes and rinsed again, but this will depend on the brand of capers – the easiest way to tell if they are still too salty is to taste them and then soak them again. Capers in the vinegar brine impart a particular flavour and are more acceptable in recipes where wine or vinegar is one of the ingredients.

They are extensively used in Sicilian cooking and Sicilians prefer the smaller capers. Good quality ones come from Salina (one of the Aeolian islands) or Pantelleria (an island, southwest of Sicily and closer to North Africa).

You will be pleased to know that we now have Australian capers growing on the dry rocky slopes of the River Murray. Some nurseries sell the seeds or plants and they are being grown in some home gardens.

Apparently in some parts of Sicily, it is common to boil the leaves and the young shoots in salty water, then they need to be drained well, dressed with good quality olive oil and lemon juice and eaten as a vegetable.

The caper flower/buds need to be soaked in water for at least 2-3 days (apparently they have some bitter taste, like olives) and then are preserved under salt or under vinegar.

Those of you living in Australia may remember how nasturtium berries used to be pickled in vinegar and called capers – we Italians knew better. Mind you, my family knew nothing about rhubarb. Our neighbours gave us some and we threw away the stalks and boiled the leaves to eat as a vegetable. Fortunately, because they tasted so bad, we did not eat them.


CAVOLO NERO and three ways to cook it

Cavolo nero  is also called black Tuscan cabbage. I have also seen it called Black kale. It is not black in colour, it is a very deep green, the leaves long, thin and curly. I constantly find myself in situations where I end up explaining to others how to clean and how to cook it. It gives me great satisfaction (I feel like a know-all). This morning it happened twice at the Queen Victoria Market. Once at the stall where I was buying it, and again a little later as I was walking along carrying it in my basket. And it happened last week as well.

Here are three ways you can enjoy it:

  • Ribollita (soup)
  • Crostini
  • Contorno ( vegetable side dish)


Cavolo nero is prolific in Tuscany and is one of the main ingredients in the famous Tuscan soup called ribollitaBollita (soup is a feminine word) means boiled, so the soup is called reboiled, and it is.

 Ribollita is made with cannellini, other greens (beets, cabbage), tomatoes, red onion, garlic, celery, carrots, leeks and cavolo nero. Once the soup is made, it is then layered with good quality 1-2 day old bread and left to rest for at least 24 hours; the flavours intensify when it rests.

When the soup is ready to eat, a little extra virgin olive oil is added and then it is reboiled. It is one of those soups that never die – leave it all week.

Have you ever eaten Tuscan bread? Wonderful stuff. Thickening and eating soup with the bread is what contadini, (peasants, on the land) have always done. This custom is very much like the French who ladle soupe over a slice of bread – pain de campagne. The quality and character of the bread is important, it adds flavour. Good bread lasts one week and many say that it improves with age.



One other way to eat cavolo nero is on crostini.

Use slices of good quality bread, grill them, and while they’re still hot rub them with a cut clove of garlic and drizzle with good quality extra virgin olive oil.

Strip the leaves off the tough stalks (I usually only remove the toughest bits of the stalks at the end of the leaf), wilt till soft, drain well and cool.

Add salt freshly ground black pepper, and a little extra virgin olive oil.

Mix well and place a little of the cooked vegetable on the hot crostini. Drizzle with more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice.

Place on slices of bread fried in extra virgin olive oil until crisp (crostini).


As a CONTORNO (a vegetable accompaniment)

I cook cavolo nero the same way as Italians cook most greens: it is first wilted then tossed around in oil and garlic and salt. Unlike most Italians who like their vegetables soft, I skip the wilting process and sauté them in oil and garlic, add salt and pepper, a splash of liquid (stock, white wine or water) and cook till softened (It is tougher than silverbeet and will take longer to cook).

In photo below, braised greens as an accompaniment to sauteed  chicken livers.




BRODO DI GALLINA (Chicken Broth)


If you aren’t feeling well, especially if you have an upset stomach Italians say that you are debole di stomaco; this seems to be a common malady with Italians. The home cure is to eat in bianco – white food (bianco is Italian for white). In bianco is the culinary term used to refer to a dish, which is served plain and with little seasoning.

Broth, boiled rice, boiled chicken/veal, certain boiled vegetables, steamed white fish, bistecca di vitello a bagnio maria (veal steak cooked in a baine marie), latte di mandorla (almond milk) and bianco mangiare (dessert= thickened almond milk) are some of the foods which are considered mangiare (food) in bianco.

The perfect in bianco food and the cure for any ailment of course, is brodo (broth).


I usually use a whole, organic chicken and eat the flesh after I have made the broth. If I use a veal shin I also eat the flesh (try it with a salsa verde). If I am eating the meat, I remove the chicken or veal from the broth after about  60-80 minutes of gentle cooking and then evaporate the broth on high heat.

photo 2

Obviously the more solids, the more taste. To concentrate the flavours, cook the broth for longer and towards the end of cooking, leave it uncovered to evaporate.

If you do not wish to eat the meat, fleshy bones from organic chickens are a suitable substitute. Because stock is the foundation for cooking, the quality of the bones is important, cheap bones from battery hens will not produce flavourful stock and it is likely to be full of concentrated chemicals.


Gallina vecchia fa` buon brodo (Ancient Italian proverb).

An old chicken makes good broth.



Ingredients: 1 large onion, chicken (or carcasses, necks and wings and/or veal bones) salt, peppercorns(optional), celery stick, carrot, 1-2 red tomatoes) and water to cover ingredients.
Processes: Peel and halve the onion, remove obvious fat from meat, clean the celery and carrot (no need to peel as it will be discarded). Add all of these ingredients and the seasoning to a saucepan or stockpot and cover the contents with cold water. Cover with a lid and slowly bring the broth to a boil. Simmer for 2 hours (or up to 3 hours if using large bones), skimming frequently. Strain the broth, discarding solids (unless you are eating the meat).

See  also Gnocchetti di semolino


FENNEL – male and female shapes

Although fennel bulbs may look similar in shape there are two differently shaped bulbs and each is identified by its sex (or so the Sicilians and southern Italians say) – the round are known as the maschi (the male fennel) and the slightly flattened shapes are the femmine (females).

My father always said that the round shaped fennels are the best tasting ones and this is the shape of fennel I always buy, except maybe at the end of the season when the flat, elongated bulbs of fennel become much more common. The shape differences may be subtle, but the taste of the round ones is superior. This may be because the flatter bulbs are getting ready to sprout (hence, allocated the female gender) and therefore their flavour may be dissipated.

Recently, I began to doubt my conviction. I had read that the females are the round fennel bulbs and so last Saturday morning I made a point of buying my fennel from my Italian stall holder at the Queen Victoria Market (I only purchase my fennel from one of the four stalls that sell the best fennel – two of these stalls are Asian). Just to make sure, I then asked several other Italian stallholders about male and female shapes.

Exactly right. I was very happy to have my viewpoint confirmed; for many years I have been advising many others about fennel (not only friends, but also stall holders and people who are selecting bulbs for purchasing). Besides, how could my father be so wrong? (I never appreciated his folklore as a teenager, but as an adult I began to make sense of his world – he grew up in Sicily and moved to Trieste as a seventeen-year old during the war. There he met my mother).

Bottom photos show the characteristic shapes of male and female fennel bulbs.

A friend of mine who grows fennel in her wonderful Adelaide Hills garden tells me how the plant at the very end of the growing season produces some very flat bulbs, which never mature. After speaking to her about this (last year) I saw some bunches of these small flat bulbs for sale in one of the stalls at the Queen Victoria Melbourne Market. I spoke to the vendor who said that rather than wasting them he thought that he would bunch them and try to sell them. When I saw him the following week, he said that they were not a huge success. These may one day become marketable and could be used as a substitute for making Pasta con le sarde or the Minestra di finocchio e patate.


What happens to the flat shaped bulbs of fennel in Italy?

If you have a look at all my photos of fennel in this blog taken in Italy, you will see that they are all round in shape. I do not know what happens to the flat ones, but I have never seen them for sale. Maybe these are removed when young? My father always removed some of his fruit crop when the fruit had just formed. This allowed the remaining fruit to grow big.

There are many recipes for how to use fennel on my blog ( too many to list here). Key in fennel in the search button.




This is a very simple and colourful salad, full of different flavours and it includes fennel –very prolific and in season in Australia at the moment. I always find this vegetable very refreshing and cleansing.

Capricciosa means whimsical or fanciful in Italian and the salad lives up to its name. I found this salad in a book about Sicilian recipes that I bought at a railway station. It is listed as N’ZALATA CRAPICIOSA – a misprint, surely? But capricious to the end!


This salad consists of finely sliced fennel, chopped green olives, capers and red salad onion. In Italy this type of onion is called cipolla calabrese or cipolla Tropea. The name is appropriate – it grows extensively in Calabria and is a dominant ingredient in Calabrese cooking.

Red onions do not just grow in the South of Italy, I also found fresh red onions (sold with their green tops) all over Tuscany and Rome at the end of last year. (The photo was taken in the Greve market, held each Saturday morning in the Piazza where we were staying in December 2008).

Onions, like all vegetables are seasonal. As well as using fresh onions raw in salads, Sicilians also use mature ones (those with dry skin) but usually they “sweeten” them first.

My father always did this, especially for his famous tomato salads. Raw onions are first sliced and then sprinkled with salt (some soak them in cold, salted water) for about 20 minutes – use a colander. The onions are then squeezed to remove the excess liquid and the strong flavour (my father wore his glasses for this process); he also quickly rinsed the onions at the end. 

As a variation, for colour and flavour I have used some chopped finely fennel fonds and sometimes finely chopped mint for extra zing.

For the dressing use quality extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper and a dash of vinegar. Dress and toss the salad just before serving.

WILD FENNEL and photos

Wild fennel is frequently used in Sicilian food to add a particular aniseed taste to many dishes. It can be cooked (see recipes for Pasta con le sarde and Ministra di finocchio e patate ) or added raw like any chopped herb, for example as in an olive or an octopus salad. The seeds are also used, for example scattered on bread before baking or to flavour marinades and preserves. 

These photos of wild fennel were kindly sent to me by one of my readers who lives in Philadelphia. 

She has travelled to Sicily several times and has also attended cooking classes there. She is aware about the differences in flavour between wild fennel and the bulb fennel. Since coming back from Sicily she has found a good source for wild fennel seeds and they are sprouting well in her North American garden in an apartment complex. 

She writes:
The gentleman in the blue work suit is holding wild fennel. We picked lots of it. My understanding is that you never eat it raw and that the “frilly” part at the top has tons of flavor unlike the typical fennel I find here with the large bulb where the frilly part has almost no flavor at all. 

I don’t think wild fennel has any bulb at all. It appears if anything, more like celery in that it is a simple stalk except with the frilly parts at the top.



I love baked ricotta, but not the bastardized versions blended with eggs and herbs I have seen for sale. I do not know where these originated – not in Italy and definitely not Sicily!

I like to make the authentic, baked ricotta – unadulterated, white and fresh tasting in the centre, with a golden-brown crust. I particularly like it as a first course accompanied by a tomato salad and presented as a light meal.


Purchase the solid ricotta, in Australia usually sold by weight from four kilo shapes . The creamy variety sold in plastic tubs is not suitable.
In Sicily the ricotta is drained (on a rack overnight in the fridge) and just rubbed with salt and baked slowly uncovered until it becomes a dark golden colour. Sometimes, olive oil is rubbed over the ricotta before the salt is added, but not always. I also like to add a few herbs for flavour at the bottom of the ricotta while it is cooking and sometimes pepper (or red chili flakes) but this is not strictly traditional.




ricotta, fresh and a solid piece

extra virgin olive oil, to coat the ricotta
herbs:¼-½ cup dried oregano, enough to sprinkle as a covering and on the bottom
fresh rosemary and/or bay leaves (optional) placed under the ricotta
black pepper, ¼-½ cup or dried red chili flakes, 1 teaspoon (optional)
salt (flakes or coarse), to sprinkle on top.



The following cooking time is for a piece of ricotta weighing about 1 kilo.
Pre heat your oven to 180 C.
Oil the bottom of a baking tray, place a sprinkling of freshly ground black pepper, and oregano (also the bay leaves and/or rosemary if you wish to include these).
Place the lump of ricotta (or wheel) on top of the flavourings.
Oil, the ricotta lightly – use your hands to coat it.
Sprinkle with the salt (I use flakes) and oregano – use your hands to ensure that it is well seasoned.

Cover with foil and bake in a 180 C for 15 minutes . Remove the foil and bake uncovered until the it has just begun to turn golden brown – it may take about 40 minutes or more, depending on the size.

Allow to cool before eating.

Cover with foil – this dish will keep well in the fridge for 3 days. A perfect dish to prepare well ahead of time.

In a restaurant in Syracuse I was presented with warm baked ricotta sprinkled with a coating of toasted pistachio nuts.
To make this version, rub the ricotta with olive oil and a little salt. Add the nuts in the last 20 minutes of cooking.

It can also double up as a dessert if dribbled with honey.