Artichokes are one of the nicest things about winter in central Italy. They appear with the leaden skies of December and accompany us through the beginning of spring, in April. They come in a tremendous variety of shapes and colors, from tiny delicate ones well suited for being eaten raw in Pinzimonio (a dip made with simple olive oil and salt) or preserved sott’olio (in oil); to purplish green grapefruit-sized ones suitable for sauteing, stuffing, salads, making pasta sauce, frying and whatnot. Since this is the end of this adorable bounty, why not use up the last artichokes for something sassy and palatable?
The globe varietal is considered throughout the world as the true artichoke, in Italian food classification however it is the Roman. No matter which variety you select, you have to do so with great care, because a fuzzy choke is a tremendous disappointment. Like any good orange, a good carciofo will feel firm and solid when you pick it up. It should squeak yet shouldn't give if you clutch it gently, nor should it feel light. If it does, it probably has air (and thistly fuzz fiber) in its heart. Pass it by.
Once you have selected your artichokes and gotten them home, stand them in a vase with water until you're ready to use them (they are flowers, after all). If need be you can keep them like this for a day or two, but they do tend to toughen with time.
The secret – admitted it can be called that – for preparing an artichoke is knowing how to trim it, that is how to free it of the tough leaves, bitter outer stem part and inner fuzz we Romans call with the generalizing term barbe, for "beards".
First of all rub your hands and fingernails with lemon juice, to avoid them from blackening, artichokes do that. Next, slice off the tough, pointy spiked tips and the outer coriaceous leaves, working inwards to where the leaves are more tender and light colored.
This is much like peeling an apple. In the process the artichoke will become spherical.
Be sure to keep rubbing it with lemon juice as you trim it along.
When that's done, the stalks need cleaning, trimming away the ridged outer part while leaving the heart intact. If you look at the end of the stem you will see a ring; trim away the outside og that ring, without shortening the stalks: if properly cleaned, the stems are the sweetest, best tasting part of the artichoke!
Now that the hard part's over, here's how to cook carciofi, Roman-style. This is one of my all-time favorite side dishes. I have to thank my eldest half-sister Amy, for that. She's the one who taught me to appreciate artichokes when I was 8 years old. I never stopped eating them since.
5 artichokes, trimmed
2 garlic cloves, unpeeled, smashed
1 small bunch of mentuccia
1 glass of water
1/4 cup olive oil
3-4 new potatoes, quartered
Place the trimmed artichokes standing stems upward in a pot whose sides are high enough to keep the artichokes upright in a single layer as they cook.
Pour 1 glass of water and the olive oil, the garlic, the mentuccia and potatoes. Season with a pinch of salt. Set the covered pot to simmer on medium-low heat.
The trick is to place a sheet of brown paper between the lid and the pot to create a barrier that will seal off any steam from escaping the pot.
Cook for 10-15 minutes without ever uncovering.
The artichokes are ready to be served hot, though they're also excellent cold the next day.