I adore shopping at Leo’s stand. He carries only a few products, all displayed as if at Tiffany’s, with each tomato shining, melons cut open for tasting, their perfume calling out “Assaggiami” (taste me), along with the rest of the season’s best.
Right now, I go to Leo for carciofi, artichokes, laid out like rare flowers on a pine-needle bed.
Leo is my Artichoke Maestro. He carries a large variety of artichokes and has taught me how each one should be prepared.
Some are to be eaten raw, in Pinzimonio, he tells me as he trims then for me to taste. Raw artichokes taste like the best Tuscan extra virgin olive oil, so it is easy to understand why all you need to do is dip them in oil with a pinch of salt to make them sing! Try a Carpaccio of carciofi: slice the artichokes thinly and serve them with lemon juice, olive oil, and shaved parmesan cheese.
Stewed artichokes with garlic and cherry tomatoes are fabulous on their own, on top of pasta, or served with grilled fish. My own addition is grated orange zest and a splash of orange juice at the end, which adds a rich contrast to the already wonderful dish.
Tuscans are the best at frying, and fried artichokes are always a favourite. The crisp batter around the tender artichokes, cut into tiny bite-size pieces, are a reward for the time-consuming art of cleaning an artichoke.
The Frittata di Carciofi takes some time to master. The flipping of the frittata is usually left to the hands of a Mamma or a Nonna with years of experience, but an oven-baked frittata is easy enough for beginners.
But the recipe which takes the most time and patience, taught to me by Leo years ago, is his marinated artichoke hearts, Carciofi Sott’olio. This recipe calls for the last and the smallest of the artichokes. Each year I do about 350 of them, and, putting them away for several months, I share them only with the best of friends.
Here is Leo’s recipe for Carciofi Sott’olio; perhaps if you are lucky you will find your own maestro!
Clean the tiny artichokes by removing the thick harder leaves until you arrive at the delicate, light green centre.
Slice off the pointy top.
Now you have an artichoke heart!
Trim away any tough stem on the bottom and around the bottom of the heart.
Mix 2 tbs of fine sea salt in 1 litre of red wine vinegar.
Add the cleaned artichokes to the vinegar and let sit for one or two days until pickled.
Drain the artichokes and turn cut side down ( don’t do this on a marble table as vinegar will ruin the marble).
Let sit for a day.
Place the artichokes into glass jars and cover with olive oil.
Push down to release any air bubbles and seal.
To be sure you won’t kill anyone, you can sterilise the sealed jars in boiling water for 20 minutes.
Let sit 3 months before serving.
Sometimes in America, with the large Globe artichokes, you need to cut out the choke completely. We are lucky, for in Venice, the larger artichokes are sold already clean and ready to cook! In Rome they have the smaller artichokes trimmed to prepare Carciofi alla Romana, cooked whole with the long stems stuffed with mint and garlic, or Carciofi alla Judea which are fried twice, trimmed and opened, then crushed so they look like roses.
Carciofi in Umido
8 small, young artichokes
1 garlic clove, sliced
To clean artichoke: remove tough outer leaves.
The inner leaves are pale yellow/green.
Cut off tips.
What is left is what is known as an artichoke heart.
Clean artichokes as described above.
Trim stem of tough outer layer.
Cut into fourths or sixths.
Remove any purple choke and pointy tips on the inside.
Sauté in olive oil with sliced garlic.
Add thyme, salt, and chopped parsley.
Add one cup water.
Cover and cook until tender.