It is Spring in Melbourne and artichokes (carciofi) and asparagus (asparagi) season.
We do not see the numerous artichokes in large bunches with long stems that one sees all over Sicily but artichokes in the larger Australian cities have become more common and I have even seen some in supermarkets, but not necessarily fresh and crisp as they should be.
Last year I was able to buy artichokes from a grower in Werribee – not far from Melbourne.
Asparagus are everywhere in Melbourne (other places in Australia as well). Mostly they are the thin variety of asparagus sold in bunches but in the last few years the thick asparagus sold by weight are easily found. Those of you who eat out or read recipes may have noticed that more and more vegetables are presented char grilled (rather than steamed) and the large asparagus are perfect for this.
In Australia (or at least in Melbourne) we have not yet reached the wild asparagus trend (photos above and below). Wild asparagus are appreciated all over Italy.
I quite often cook asparagus and artichokes together. I have a friend who eats gluten free food so I stuffed these artichokes with almond meal, parsley, garlic and one egg (make a stiff paste). I braised the artichokes in stock and white wine and because I did not have the correct sized saucepan (I am not living in my apartment at the moment) I had to use a large saucepan.
No problems – I used whole potatoes to support the artichokes in an upright position. I then added asparagus a few minutes before I was ready to present the artichokes.
I have written many recipes for artichokes on my blog… Use the search button and type in ‘artichokes’ if you wish to find how to clean artichokes and recipes.
Stripped of their tough outer leaves artichokes are perfect for eating with just a fork and a knife. The artichokes in this photo were cooked by a friend and she braised them with beans (pulses).
I use good quality pasta and sometimes interesting shapes. Croxetti (also called corzetti or curzetti) is a traditional type of pasta from Liguria; they are in the shape of flat medallions and usually stamped with a decorative design.
Use this sauce made with Spring vegetables as a dressing for the cooked pasta.
Artichokes:strip them of their outer, tough leaves and cut vertically straight down the middle and into thin slices; each half of the artichoke can be cut into eight pieces or more. Rub the artichoke slices with a cut lemon as you work to stop it discolouring.
Strip the fibrous covering off the artichoke stalks and slice the remaining centre of the stalk into thin slices. To do this, cut off the very end of the stem and then strip the covering or use a paring knife to cut off the covering – expect the covering to be thick.
Asparagus are prolific in Spring. Once the tough bottom end of each asparagus is snapped off and discarded, slice the remaining stalks thinly as they will need more cooking than the top end of the asparagus.
Sauté the sliced artichokes and stalks in extra virgin olive oil. Add 1/2 cup of white wine and a little stock and seasoning. Cover with a lid and braise until softened. Remove from the pan and set aside.
Spring onions are always handy to add flavour and a few peas or broadbeans are excellent in Spring.
Sauté the spring onions (sliced) in some extra virgin olive oil, add the asparagus and peas (or broadbeans) and a little salt and pepper. I also add about 1/2 teaspoon of sugar. Toss them around in the hot pan until softened (I like to keep the vegetables a little firm). You may wish to sauté these vegetables in two stages – overcrowding the pan is not a good idea. Return the artichokes to the pan and heat through. Add a dollop of butter, a little grated nutmeg, some chopped parsley or some basil leaves .
Dress the cooked pasta with the vegetable sauce. If you wish,cut off the very end of the stem, and peel the tough outside layer of the stem with a vegetable peeler. present it with a dollop of ricotta or grated Parmisan cheese.
As a variation, and if fennel is still in season,I sometimes add sauteed thinly sliced fennel to this dish.
Artichokes are called Carciofi in Italian and there are several recipes on my blog Key in “carciofi” in search button.
There are two words for carciofi in the Sicilian dialect, cacocciuli. and carcioffuli.
The Italian word for artichoke is carciofo and carciofi is the plural. And were would Italian cooking be without artichokes?
My favourite way of cooking artichokes is the simple way that my mother has always cooked them. My maternal grandmother Maria (originally from Catania but who lived in Trieste for about 20 years) also cooked them this way. She used the same mixture to stuff sardines, tomatoes and artichokes. I researched Sicilian recipes for stuffed artichokes and found that they are all braised in the same way, but there are regional variations in the stuffing, for example in some parts of Sicily they add mint, others include eggs, some minced onion, or more cheese and even salame.
In Australia, although artichokes are now widely available, they are still thought of as exotic and possibly difficult to prepare. Exotic? Yes, maybe – for their unique taste and appearance, but once you know how to prepare them, they are simple to cook. You may need to tell your friends how to eat them (most will attempt to eat artichokes with a knife and fork).
Selecting good artichokes is important. Time and time again I have chosen not to buy artichokes as they have been picked too late (too mature). I suspect that some of the inexperienced growers may think that big is better, however this is not necessarily the case (some of the green coloured ones can be large but also tender). And as with all vegetables, I never select ones that are bruised, blemished or withered
INGREDIENTS AND PROCESS
Select and clean the artichokes carefully (as described in my previous post, Carciofi – artichokes and how to clean them). Cut the bases off flat so that they can stand up in a saucepan. Select the size of the saucepan carefully – you do not want them falling over, the artichokes should be close together. Do not forget to include the cleaned stems to add to the braise and keep the artichokes in acidulated water as you work.
I include one artichoke per person and each artichoke only needs 2-3 teaspoons of stuffing.
STUFFING: Combine the ingredients for the stuffing in a bowl. This ratio is good: 1 tablespoon of fresh breadcrumbs (made of good quality bread), 1 teaspoon of each – chopped parsley, extra virgin olive oil and grated cheese (you can use parmesan, but generally pecorino is traditionally Sicilian) and some chopped garlic to taste.
Drain the artichokes, spread the leaves (especially in the centre) and sprinkle salt and pepper in between the leaves. Push the stuffing mainly in the centre and if there is any left over, between the leaves. I use my fingers.
Arrange the artichokes standing upright in a pan, put the stems between them and drizzle well with more extra virgin olive oil. Add enough cold water to reach to about 1cm below the artichokes. Cook slowly with a lid for about an hour. Having lived in Trieste, I always add a splash of white wine and sometimes a little stock or a good quality vegetable stock cube to the poaching liquid.
If you are adding peas, broadbeans and/or potatoes just add them to the poaching liquid. The potatoes can go in at the same time, the peas and broadbeans about 15 minutes before the artichokes are cooked. ‘Those Italians’ would cook them all at the same time –they like their food overdone, but maybe they are right and there is more flavour.
I like to present carciofi as a single course – they are too fiddly to eat as an accompaniment to a main course.
Key in “artichokes” in search button for more artichoke recipes.
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.
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 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).