Few vegetables say spring like the artichoke. For me, in Rome, it was always the ultimate sign of la primavera, especially where I lived in the Jewish ghetto, which is known for its numerous restaurants specializing in the deep-fried "Jewish style" artichokes in-season. In the U.S., California provides almost 100 percent of the nation’s artichoke crop. Castroville, in Monterey County, calls itself “The Artichoke Center of the World,” and is host to an annual festival held since 1959, which celebrates the perennial thistle. Still, fifty years seems like a drop in the bucket, when we consider the fact that artichokes have been consumed in the Mediterranean region since the sixth century B.C.
From There to Here: A Brief History of the Thistle
Cynara cardunculus, the globe artichoke, is thought to have originated in Northern Africa. Its name comes from the Arabic al-kharshuf or ardi-shoky, meaning “ground-thorny,” which became carciofo (car-CHO-foe) in Italian. A relative of the cardoon, the artichoke was cultivated in Sicily during the Greek occupation, as early as 500 B.C., and eventually made its way to mainland Italy.
It reached Naples in the 9th century, and was supposedly brought north to Florence in the 1460’s by Filippo Strozzi, a wealthy Florentine banker who’d been exiled to Naples by the Medici family. From here, it traveled further north to Venice and then into southern France, reaching Avignon by about 1532. The artichoke spread throughout Europe to eventually flower in Henry VIII’s gardens in the 1540’s, though it had probably always been a staple in the Southern Mediterranean regions historically touched by Greek, and later Arab, influence: Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, and Southern France.
It was the French who first introduced the artichoke to 19th century Louisiana, and therefore to the American table, though Spanish immigrants are the ones credited with bringing the vegetable to California, where it’s flourished ever since.
When In Rome…
It’s the Roman artichoke, the carciofo romanesco, the Cynara scolymus: a gorgeous, deep purple-and-green globe. Synonymous with the celebrated Roman Spring, it's perfectly paired with Easter specialties like baby lamb, fava beans, asparagus, and spring peas. Anyone who has ever tried an artichoke in The Eternal City knows that there may be no better place on earth to eat one. It is the single most popular vegetable in Rome, and has become the city's culinary symbol.
The two most common local artichoke preparations are alla romana – Roman-style, slow braised in oil and wine with wild Roman mint and pecorino cheese, and alla giudea – Jewish-style, deep-fried twice so the crispy outer petals open up but the heart remains tender within. Unlike botanically similar varieties found elsewhere, the romanesco artichoke is eaten young, before it gets woody. This allows a greater portion of the flower to be edible, though local cooks generally pare down the leaves quite a bit. Romans tend to go straight for the tender heart.
Cooking with Carciofi
Romans believe artichokes reduce cholesterol, cleanse the liver…and are an aphrodisiac to boot. Whatever their benefits may be, nutritional or otherwise, artichokes are labor-intensive but well worth the work.
A trip to any Roman market in the spring months will reveal numerous carciofare, or artichoke trimmers, in quick action with gloved hands, a sharp knife, and a container of water with cut lemons floating in it: the acidulated water keeps the chlorophyll oxidation to a minimum, so the artichokes remain green and beautiful. Look for artichokes that are heavy for their size, with tightly-packed leaves.
CARCIOFI ALLA ROMANA
2 cloves garlic, minced
4 TBS. Chopped fresh flat leaf parsley
4 TBS. Chopped fresh mint or mentuccia
½ cup Pecorino Romano cheese, grated
1 cup dry white wine
2 TBS. Minced olive oil-packed anchovy fillets (optional)
salt & pepper to taste
extra-virgin olive oil, as needed (about 1-2 cups)
-Fill a large bowl with water and squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it.
-Trim artichoke stems, cut the top of the artichoke bulb off, and peel the outer leaves of the artichoke.
-Carefully scoop out the choke with a melon baller or paring knife.
-As each artichoke is trimmed, put it into the acidulated water.
-In a small bowl, combine the garlic, parsley, mint, bread crumbs, and anchovies, if using. Season with salt & pepper.
-Pat dry the artichokes, stuff the stuffing mixture into the cavity left by the choke and between the leaves. Close leaves over filling.
- Place artichokes stem-up in a baking dish and add 1 part olive oil to 1 part white wine to 2 parts water, to almost cover artichoke bulb.
- Cover and cook until tender when tested with a toothpick/skewer, about 45 minutes to an hour (either in oven or on the stovetop).
- Can be served warm or eaten at room temperature, kept in the braising liquid. Serve with lemon wedges.