Against the strain of modern life

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It’s time. Well almost. In late February one of the most beloved and revered varieties of Rome’s favorite vegetable: il carciofo romanesco* comes into her precocious, plump, perennial-thistle prime. Vincenzo, my fruttivendolo informed me as much – without unnecessary alliteration – while trimming with such dextrous speed I could barely discern what his hands or his knife were doing. Not that I needed to discern, I’ve had plenty of impromptu lessons in the art of artichoke trimming from Vincenzo over the last eight years. Plenty! For as in life, I’m enthusiastic but doubtful.

While Luca shouted ‘ball, ball, BALL‘ at anything round, which meant almost everything, we were, after all, standing beside a fruit and vegetable stall, and while Vincenzo trimmed ten artichokes for a stern signora in a fur coat, I chose my five from the crates stacked up against the side of the stall. There may well be a couple of weeks to go, but it’s hard to imagine more glorious globes: heavy in hand, intricate clusters of violet-stained leaves with coarse ribbed stems and silvery glaucous-green leaves. ‘Ball‘ Luca barked at the artichokes. Vincenzo chuckled, blasphemed and gave me an especially nice stem of mentuccia when I told him I was going to trim them myself.

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Vincenzo makes trimming artichokes of all varieties, shapes and sizes look elementary and effortless. Be it a long thorny spinoso, a tiny violet choke no larger than a walnut, a modest green globe or a princely romanesco he whittles away the tough inedible parts with artful and rapid skill. I, on the other hand, can claim no such art, skill or speed. I have however been taught well and practiced enthusiastically and can now trim an artichoke pleasantly enough.

That said, I am not about to proffer trimming advice here! Not yet at least. Rather I suggest you arm yourself with a short sharp knife, a lemon, five globes, a cooks perk (whatever that may be, mine’s a cooking sherry) and watch this. No whimsical folk music, wistful angles and aspirational seasoning in this video, just artichoke whittling advice from Nonna Adriana.

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Unsurprisingly Romans have countless ways of preparing and cooking their favourite vegetable. Inventive and imaginative ways evolved to bring out the best in every variety. When it comes to the prized carciofo romanesco – an almost rudely large but very tender globe that has no thorns or pesky, hairy choke in the center – two ways of cooking prevail. The first and my favourite is Carciofi alla giudia or artichokes Jewish style. A slightly less compact variety of romanesco is trimmed rigorously and then squashed so the leaves splay out in much the same way as a fully opened chrysanthemum. This splayed artichoke flower is then deep-fried until the leaves are deep golden brown, crisp, brittle and charred, the heart within soft and tender. Superb, just superb and best consumed with your fingers if not in prudish company.

The other way of cooking carciofo romanesco (and another large globe varieties) is alla romana, Roman style. Having carefully trimmed your chokes, you open up the central cavity with your thumbs and then fill this space with a mixture of very finely chopped mint, garlic and possibly parsley. The mint is fundamental, it pairs brilliantly with the soft, curiously metallic, elegant flavour of the artichoke. In Rome mentuccia is used but normal mint will suffice. Once stuffed, the artichokes are arranged flower downwards/ stem upwards in a pan (along with the rest of the stems if your pan is too shallow) and some olive oil, wine and water. The pan is then covered with a damp cloth and tight-fitting lid before the artichokes are cooked slowly – braised and steamed really – over a medium flame under the liquid has all but evaporated and the artichokes are aromatic and meltingly tender.

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At this time of year great platters of carciofi alla romana are to be found in most trattoria, they are a welcome and delightful sight, like wind inverted umberellas, their long upended stems (the best and most delectable part) pointing skywards. They are served as an antipasti or contorno at room temperature with either a little of the cooking liquid or raw extra virgin olive oil poured over. Bread is recommended for mopping up. They really are one of the joys of Roman trattoria in spring. They are an equally joyful and surprisingly straightforward dish to make at home. Really! Despite my doubtful and idle nature and my painfully slow trimming technique, I’m now dedicated to whittling, stuffing and simmering artichokes at home. Home in Rome that is, where artichokes are unquestionably good. But I hear you can find pretty wonderful artichokes in the UK and US now! Thoughts? Opinions?

And the title of the post: Against the strain of modern life or ‘Contro il logorio della vita moderna.‘ It’s an advertising slogan for Cynar a weirdly delicious bitter aperitif based on artichokes that I absolutely adore. Contro il logorio della vita moderna indeed! An impressive claim. But an entirely plausible one if you consider the virtues of artichokes: folic acid, wealth of minerals, fibre, diuretic and laxative properties (now really lets not be shy, these things matter) and not forgetting artichokes are an aphrodisiac. I repeat, an aphrodisiac.  Against the strain of modern life! Well I for one am a believer. So it seems is my son.

You can of course use a knife and fork, but I agree with Marco, fingers are best. Pull away the leaves one by one, making sure you drag them idly though the pool of oil on the way to your mouth. The stem is good if consumed as you might an asparagus spear. The heart, of course, is eaten last.

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Carciofi alla romana Artichokes Roman style

Inspired by the carciofi alla romana I have eaten in various Roman Trattorie with advice from Gillian Riley, Marcella Hazan, Rosa D’Acona, Nonna Adriana and Jane Grigson.

  • 5 large globe artichokes
  • a lemon or bowl of cold water with the juice of a lemon added
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped parsley (optional)
  • 2 tbsp very finely chopped mint (ideally mentuccia)
  • 2 cloves garlic very finely chopped
  • salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 8 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • glass of white wine

You will need a heavy-based pot with a tight-fitting lid tall enough to accommodate the artichokes which are to go in standing

Prepare the artichokes by first pulling away the darker tougher leaves, pulling them down towards the base of the artichoke and snapping them off just before the base. Then using sing a sharp knife, pare away the tough green flesh from the base of the artichokes and the stem. As you work rub the cut edges of the artichoke with a cut lemon or sit them in a bowl of acidulated water

In a bowl mix together the chopped parsley, mint and garlic, add a generous pinch of salt and a few grindings of black pepper. Using your thumbs open up the flower and then press 1/5 of the herb and garlic mixture into the hollow cavity.

Sit the artichokes, top downwards, stems upwards the pan. Add the olive oil, wine and enough water to come on third of the way up the leaves.

Cover the pot with a damp muslin or cotton cloth (or a piece of doubled over kitchen towel) and then put the lid over the cloth. Bring the edges of the cloth back over the top of the pan. Put the pan over a medium/low flame for 40 minutes – the liquid in the pan should bubble and steam purposefully but not aggressively. The artichokes are done when a fork easily pierces the thickest part of the stem near the heart.

When done, use a slotted spoon move the artichokes on to a serving plate – stems up. Allow them to cool to room temperature. Reserve the cooking juices and pour them over the artichokes just before serving. Eat.

* Artichokes are a seasonal crop. The variety I am talking about, il carciofo romanesco castellammare or mammola is cultivated in and around Cerveteri and Ladispoli. It is a winter crop and can be found from November until April. It’s at it’s best however – weather permitting – from the last week of February /first week of March up until the sagra di carciofi in early April. Most other varieties are found later in the spring.

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43 Comments

Filed under antipasti, artichokes, food, In praise of, rachel eats Italy, rachel eats London, Rachel's Diary, recipes, Roman food, spring recipes

43 responses to “Against the strain of modern life

  1. The artichokes in my garden are just coming back to life, still only a couple of feet tall. Thank you for the link to Nonna Adriana – I would have never have found it otherwise. I shall be trying your recipe at the end of summer when my artichokes are ready.

    • rachel

      I was so glad to find Nonna A. I also found another very bizarre film of a family making artichokes – but it seems to have disappeared! Your own artichokes! A garden – lucky you

  2. I love to eat the things but am always nervous/lazy about home-trimming. This is very encouraging!

  3. I have tried to grow these in our garden for two years now and something keeps eating them before I can. When I catch whatever it is…. Yours look mouthwateringly delicious. If any come back this year it will be a few months yet before we can try them. I have my fingers firmly crossed.

    • rachel

      I have my fingers crossed too. They are pretty good alla R, That said I am still really fond of artichokes french style, that is boiled whole and eaten petal by petal dipped in melted butter. the Italians find even the thought of laborious method odd. Grey day in Rome, hope you are all well x

  4. I always love the photos and the back drop of your kitchen and window in your blogs. Those artichokes look very pretty!

  5. I was hoping it would be a recipe for Roman style. I’ve had the determination to make these at home only once and the rewards were certainly worth the effort. This encourages me to fortify myself with a strong cup of afternoon coffee (caffeine jitters required) and set to work manically trimming a bunch of artichokes! Call me Edward Scissorhands!

    Heading to email for a note and belated soup recipe.

    • rachel

      Hi Lara. I am in a semi-permanent sate of caffiene jitters these days. Got your super mail – thank you, in fact lets talk over there xxx

  6. Oh you wicked woman! We have to wait until California’s artichoke season (much later) to get our hands on some of these. Amazing how this thistle can look so welcoming in your hands. Love the recipe – similar to my grandmother’s. Yes, I love. I always wonder who decided that this would be a good thing to eat – it is so forbidding. But necessity must have stepped in.

    • rachel

      HI Claudia, many of Rome varieties bloom later (this is a precocious winter crop). Forbidding – quite. Was you grandma Italian?

  7. Ha, I actually forgot about Cynar. Now that you make me think about it, I need something against the logorio, too. Oh, I wish I had the patience to trim artichoques –instead, i only have them at the restaurant. I remember all too well the last one, in an osteria in the Roman ghetto! Oh my.

    • rachel

      Grey grey day in Rome and ye,s I too need a very large dose of something against il logorio. Double artichokes for me today. Love to London x

  8. Eha

    Oh, milady!! What a story to read! Thank you so much for the lesson ’cause I love artichokes! Great recipe: next time I’ll add the extra white wine also! I remember all the very many times I +++ would walk into some of Rome’s so-called ‘premier’ restaurants and be shown the stuffed etc vegetable dishes as a first course for lunch, and think they were SO boring . . . what fools . . .

    • rachel

      Fools indeed. MInd you in dark trattoria the stuffed veg and curious shaped artichokes can look odd (even boring) to the uninitiated. Glad you like the recipe x

  9. Those artichokes look so beautiful I cannot take it! We have several months to go before artichokes are ready to harvest locally (Colorado), but now I’m craving them. :)

    • rachel

      Hi Jess, They are beautiful – both outside and in – and so very tender. I obviously didn’t take a picture of my less successful trimming the day before They were still tasty though

  10. Believe it or not, I’ve never trimmed an artichoke. Maybe now is a good time to try. The first time I walked into a market in Rome and saw all the vendors busily trimming vegetables as they chatted away, I was blown away. Freshly picked, freshly trimmed vegetables there for the taking–what a concept–makes making lunch or dinner that much easier. Beautiful photos. Hope all is well.

    • rachel

      Hi Michele – I am so glad you understand, as always my post is wordy and lopsided and probably difficult to understand if you haven’t been to Rome and seen the fiendishly fast artichoke trimmers at work. Now the market has relocated and many of the older Stallholders retired rather than move, there are less trimmers. That said, several remain, of which Vincenzo is (probably) king. Oh you should come and visit again, we would have an artichoke feast. And thanks, yes all’s well (ball, ball, car, ball, pasta, ball). Hope all’s well with you too.

  11. Oh, envy. I wish I could say I knew as much about California artichokes…

  12. johanna

    beautiful artichokes. so jealous. basically zero vegetables ‘in season’ here in new york. hope you will write more about delicious fat especially pancetta soon as promised!

    • rachel

      You are right, I did (attentive Johanna) and I will. And not that we want to wish time away, but roll on spring and your lovely veg. Have a good week.

  13. laura

    Ciao, Rachel. Very few artichoke trimmers left here in Florence, but I love artichokes – ANY way imaginable – and so I’ve learned to do it myself. Thank you, though, for another inimitable post; I always learn great tweaks from you, as well as great recipes. And the photo of Luca is a perfect example of “a picture is worth a thousand words”!

    • rachel

      Morning,
      ….having been so proud of my artichoke eating son, the following day he threw one across the room in disgust. Market trimmers are a dying breed here in Rome too – Vincenzo is an (brilliant) exception. I’m looking for a nice pasta with artichoke recipe – any ideas? x

      • laura

        One of my favorite standbys is thinly sliced artichokes cooked in garlic, oil and parsley (and mentuccia, if I can find it) with a bit of fresh peeled and sliced tomato towards the end. Some of the pasta water at the end of course to make it all come together. Optional: red pepper flakes. Works for risotto, too. Artichokes and sausage also go well together, imho.
        (Children teach us the art of never taking anything for granted!)

      • rachel

        sounds like just my sort of thing – thanks L

  14. I love artichokes, all shapes and sizes, raw or cooked, more than words can say! My mouth is watering just looking at these pictures. Off to Sicily next week, hoping to find truckloads already…

  15. And, Rachel, carciofi are fantastic for the liver … for detoxing and what have you! Any excuse, insomma, to gobble up carciofi!

    • rachel

      Any excuse indeed. I bet you have some nice recipes for carciofi Jo – I should come and have a root through your archives..

  16. I’m very concerned about the identification of mentuccia with pennyroyal. It seems reasonably common, almost certainly wrong, and possibly dangerous. Mentuccia, as I understand it, is Calamintha nepeta, and reasonably good to eat. Pennyroyal is Mentha pulegium and rather toxicm, long being used to procure an abortion.

    Are you sure that they are equivalent? I’d hate some English gardener who has easy access to pennyroyal but not mentuccia to use one instead of the other.

    • rachel

      Hello Jeremy
      Thank you so much for this (alarming) comment and I have amended the post. I obviously need to check. The identification with PennyRoyal was from Gillian Rileys’s Oxford companion to Italian food which is usually extremely reliable and I thought scrupulously researched. I will check.
      But really thanks.
      Rachel

      • Thanks Rachel. I’m trying to run this down myself. I know Gillian, and will ask her directly. The “translation” seems to be one of those things that everyone knows …

      • For what it is worth, The Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking published by Slow Food Editore lists Mentha pulegium (pennyroyal) as one of the most commonly used mints in the Italian kitchen. However, my digging around also turned up warnings about digesting pennyroyal. Apparently it scores high marks as a natural insect repellant.

      • rachel

        Thanks so much Steven – I’ve been eyeing that dictionary. I suppose this is in line with Gillian Riley’s identification with pennyroyal which although toxic can be ingested in small quantities. The pennyplot continues….

  17. I think so many of these dictionaries, encyclopaedias, newspaper articles and blogposts are recycling what has gone before — so much easier these days — that without some clarity I don’t trust any of them. And of course Mentha pulegium would be a good insect repellent; its name tells us that.

    What I really need is a good bunch of mentuccia in flower.

  18. It’s possibly a case of internet (mis)recycling but it may also like trying to get a handle on the the Italian regional variations of fish names, or the names of pastries, but slightly more dangerous.

    If you put mentuccia into Italian wikipedia, offers both Calamintha nepeta (lesser calamint, the culinary herb) and Mentha pulegium (the emmenagogue Pennyroyal). It also suggests mentuccia is the Roman and Lazio regional name for Mentha pulegium.

    It’s easy to be critical of Wikipeda, and it can be wrong, but I’ve got a reasonable amount of faith in its constant and large-scale peer-reviewing.

    • rachel

      I didn’t check Wikipdia! Which is strange, I usually do as i too have reasonable faith in it’s zealous self editing. I am off to read that article carefully. But first a piece of your cake x

  19. Pingback: Mentuccia is not pennyroyal

  20. Grazie per il vostro articolo, mi sembra molto utile, prover senzaltro a sperimentare quanto avete indicato c’ solo una cosa di cui vorrei parlare pi approfonditamente, ho scritto una mail al vostro indirizzo al riguardo.

  21. Pingback: the other quarter | rachel eats

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