The artichoke is an unfriendly thing. The whole purpose of its design is to keep you away from it. If you try to cut it or rip into it, it bites back with a sting. Most Americans don’t eat many artichokes. I suspect that its ominous nature is the reason why.
A great discovery during my first visits to Italy was that Italians have no fear of this thorny thistle. They attack their artichokes with a gusto and flair that approaches that of a performing art. Regular shows can be seen at any Italian market, where otherwise matronly women clean artichokes with frighteningly sharp knives—right before your eyes. The end result is a naked and completely edible artichoke that can be cooked in many ways.
It’s a sawing motion that gets the job done. You hold an artichoke by its stem in one hand and saw away at with the vertical motion with a knife in the other. Once all of the green leaves are removed, the top and bottom of the artichoke are lopped off in several sweeping gestures. The bottom is immediately plunked into a vat of water into which some lemon juice has been added. This keeps the bared artichoke an alluring color of pale chartreuse.
To see this act in person is to see Italy at its best. If you marvel out loud at the spectacle it will probably lead to an even more exaggerated display of dexterity by the artichoke executioner. Leaves become dangerous projectiles as our heroine’s zeal becomes extreme.
The best place to see an artichoke being cleaned is at Campo dei Fiori in Rome—in spring. It’s in Rome that the most marvelous and diverse things are done to artichokes. They are stuffed, fried, sautéed, boiled, and even eaten raw in salads. Most restaurants proudly display their carciofi alla romana—artichokes prepared in the Roman manner—at the very front of their establishments. For this dish, the artichoke is more carefully cleaned so that the shape of the thistle remains intact, including its delicate, slender stem. It’s rubbed with garlic, mint, parsley, salt and pepper, inverted and placed in a bath of water and olive oil. It’s then cooked to a creamy texture and displayed upside down in a tray with fellow artichokes, like so many soldiers lined up for review. The cooking liquid is reduced and poured over the top. Romans like to eat artichokes at room temperature as antipasti. Thus, they are placed ever so proudly on display as hungry patrons enter their favorite eating establishments.
As prevalent as carciofi alla romana are in Rome, their careful cleaning doesn’t quite make for the kind of outdoor theater that is required to hold the fickle attention of the daily visitors to Campo dei Fiori. Here we see a slightly more brutal, less thorough, but still entirely authentic approach to the craft. The efficient women who clean their daily quota of artichokes are very friendly and submit themselves to a daily barrage of tourist paparazzi. It helps the cause if you buy a few artichokes before or after your photo session with them.
I’ve always believed that the most revealing things about a culture can be discovered by the observation of its simplest of rituals. This first real discovery of mine about Italians and their artichokes has caused me to pause often. How wonderful it is to see such zeal attached to a simple act like cleaning a vegetable. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing it with a passion. However, there’s also a telling dichotomy to this simple street lesson. Even though our artichoke cleaners saw away at their thistles with blurring speed and force, the end result is a perfectly shaped sculpture to which much love and attention is then paid.
Spring Risotto with Artichokes and Peas
Risotto Primavera con Carciofi e Piselli
If you properly clean artichokes, you can enjoy them in myriad ways. Here’s a springtime risotto recipe that takes advantage of the creamy character that artichokes take on when cooked in small slices. Peas add a sweetness that compliments the slight astringency of the artichokes.
2 pounds English peas
2 medium-size artichokes
2 spring onions
5 tablespoons butter
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
6 cups meat broth
2 cups imported Italian arborio or carnaroli rice
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Shell the peas, discarding the pods.
Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into a large bowl. Fill the bowl about 2/3 full with water.
Remove the artichoke leaves by snapping them downward toward the stem, turning the artichoke as you do so. Before you snap each leaf, place your thumb at its base. This prevents you from snapping off the lower part of the leaf which contains its succulent, edible part. As you snap the leaf, pull it straight down, parallel to the stem. Dunk the artichoke occasionally in the acidulated water to prevent it from turning brown. Continue to remove the leaves until you reach the core where the top half of the leaves are pale in color. At this point place the artichoke on its side and cut the tips off crosswise, about halfway down the artichoke flower. With a paring knife or vegetable peeler, remove any green color that may be remaining on the artichoke. Dip it in the water again and cut it lengthwise into quarters. Scoop out the tough inner leaves with a spoon, particularly the purple ones, and remove all the fuzzy matter from the choke. What should now remain is a white-to-pale-green heart that you’ve quartered. Slice the hearts lengthwise into thin slices. Put the slices back in the acidulated water. Just before you make the risotto, drain the artichokes and rinse them.
Put the meat broth in a medium sauce pan and gently heat it over a low flame until it simmers gently.
Put 3 tablespoons of butter and the vegetable oil in a large, heavy pot over a medium flame. After the butter has melted, add the onions. Saute them until they are translucent.
Add the artichokes and 1/2 cup of water. Cover and simmer over low heat for 5 minutes.
Add the peas. Stir and cook for 1 minute.
Raise the heat to high and add the rice. Stir until everything is coated with the fat. Continue to cook and stir constantly until the rice is translucent. Add 1/2 cup of the broth, stirring all the while. The cooking should be very brisk so be sure to stir constantly to keep the rice from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Add a few pinches of salt and pepper.
As soon as the broth is completely absorbed by the rice, add another 1/2 cup, again stirring constantly. Repeat this procedure until the rice is firm to the tooth, yet not chalky in its interior, about 25 minutes. If you run out of broth you may substitute water towards the end.
Take the pot off the heat and add the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter, stirring vigorously. Taste for seasonings and add salt and pepper if necessary. Serve immediately in a large shallow bowl or serving platter.