It is interesting how, as soon as you start talking with Italians from regions that are not the one you grew up in, you find out that the recipes you grew up with are little known, if at all.
It is the case of the Romagna style breadcrumb topping. It is a mixture of stale bread, garlic and herbs people from Emilia-Romagna (but especially Romagna) put on pretty much anything: any kind of fish or vegetable is suitable for this topping. I personally never liked it much – though it is more a matter of my penchant to avoid bread than a matter of taste, and, still today, I scrape it off my vegetables. Even if I take it off, it gives anything it touches this delicious, fresh depth of taste that would be harder to achieve otherwise.
Now that it’s getting close to 60F˚ here (sorry New York!) Artichokes are making an appearance in every market, and soon they will invade every garden. I never liked artichokes much…before having them cooked this way (breadcrumb topping discarded, of course).
A FEW ARTICHOKE FACTS
- Italy is the biggest producer of artichokes in the world. Completely irrelevant info, but there you have it.
- Artichokes are a real power food: they are one of the best sources of potassium, fiber and folate, a kind of vit. B that helps balance hormones and is usually recommended to pregnant women. Furthermore, is it one of the vegetables richest in protein.
- Artichokes are used in herbal teas to act as a cleanser for the liver and kidneys. It has always been thought to have therapeutical properties and it might have play a role in lowering cholesterol.
Here’s a little guide to fresh artichokes – how to pick them and how to clean them.
1. MAIN KINDS OF ITALIAN ARTICHOKES
Romanesco Artichoke – this big, globe shaped green artichoke is used to make Carciofi alla Giudia, or it is even roasted whole in Sicilian recipes. The stalk at the base of the flower is edible and really meaty and delicious.
Siena Artichoke – An oblong, purple kind of artichoke. It can be leafed down to obtain artichoke hearts, which is the most tender part.
Baby Purple Fiesole Artichokes – A small variety or artichoke that is very tender, and perfect for preserving in olive oil. Classic italian artichokes in oil are made using these guys, or well trimmed artichoke hearts.
2. HOW TO PICK ARTICHOKES
Whichever kind you decide to use, always pick the ones that are tighter and with their petals well closed. After all, they’re flowers, and the further they’ll bloom, the tougher they are going to be and they will take much longer to cook. Once they start blooming, artichokes develop a sort of hair in their hearts, which needs to be removed. You will not find any hair in fresh, tightly bunched artichokes.
basically, pick this, not this.
3. HOW TO CLEAN ARTICHOKES
First, get rid of the outer and tougher petals. Cut the stalk short, but don’t discard it entirely: you can trim it, peeling it like you would an apple. Once ready, if not cooking straight away, put them in a bowl of acidulated water, as they oxidize very easily.
If using large globe artichokes: after discarding the very outer leaves, cut the stalk leaving about 1 inch – or cut it off entirely and cook it on the side. Peel the stalk. Cut off the tips – or, the first inch. At this point, you can steam it and open the petals with your hands, and scoop out the center (where the hair grows) with a spoon. You can then stuff them and bake them, or proceed with other recipes.
If using Siena artichokes: Remove the outer petals until you reach the softer part (you will start seeing the brighter color at the base) and cut off the tips. If they are fresh, they shouldn’t have any hair to take out. If you want the hearts, remove more petals!
If using baby artichokes: Treat them like Siena artichokes, but it’ll take much less trimming to get to the softer part.
And here’s the recipe – a great side to many things!
Braised Crumbed Artichokes ‘alla Romagnola’
(makes 12 artichokes)
For the artichokes:
12 fresh Siena artichokes
2 tbsp Olive oil
3/4 to 1 cup white wine
For the crumb topping:
3/4 cup italian breadcrumbs (whole wheat too!)
a good bunch of parsley
3 fat garlic cloves (or 4 if you like it)
1/4 cup Good olive oil
Extra (but appreciated): a good handful pine nuts, finely chopped, a bunch of basil.
1. Make the crumb topping: chop the herbs, nuts and garlic together as finely as you can, and mix all the ingredients in a bowl. If the breadcrumbs seem too dry, add more oil. They should stick together a lot, and not remain loose. Store it in the fridge if not using straight away – you can also make this a day or two before.
2. Clean the artichokes: get rid of the first two crowns of outer leaves and cut off the tips, so that you are left with no thorny parts. Open them a bit with your hands, rolling them in between both your hands like you would do with lemons to get the juice. Put them in a bowl of cold water acidulated with a half lemon as you prepare them. Cut off the stalks, cut them an inch short and peel them.
3. Assemble: dry your artichokes. Add the olive oil to a pan that can fit all of them tightly (you don’t want them to fall over!)and that has a lid, and line them in. Sprinkle salt and pepper on top, and stuff each with the crumb topping. You might have leftovers or not, depending on how much stuffing you want in there.Throw in the trimmed stalks as well. Start cooking them on medium-low, until they are well stir fried – about 2-3 minutes. You will not need to move the artichokes as they cook. Add enough water to cover them halfway through and let them cook, half covered, until soft. this might take anytime from 30 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the artichokes you are using. When the water dries out, add the wine. If your artichokes take longer or less to cook, keep an eye on the liquid. You might want to use more or less wine or water. The less coking time, the less liquid you’ll need. They kind of cook like Chinese dumplings, getting crispy on the bottom and steamed on top. Test them for doneness with a fork: they will be ready when the petals will detach easily, and the fork will break through with no resistance.
4. Extra step: You could make things even better and broil them for 5 minutes at the end. This will make the crumb topping crisp and really finish things off! Make sure you are using a pan that can go in the oven.
And they are done! They do require a little patience, but they are not difficult at all to make. The nuts and the broiling are my personal twist to the family recipe. What I love most about this recipe is how you’re basically cooking the life out of these guys and the bottoms turn a soft, melt-in-your-mouth, buttery consistency.
I’d love to hear what your favorite ways to cook artichokes are. I also love them in frittatas, but I’m eager to try something I’ve never tried before.
Let me know!