Recipe below: Carciofi alla Romana
An artichoke’s taste is deeply vegetal and slightly bitter with a final burst of sweetness that to me tastes a bit like Splenda. The sweetness can be startling, especially if you enhance it with a sip of wine. And the texture varies depending on where you’re at. The tender outer leaves are slippery, the stem sturdier with a touch of fiber, and the heart a creamy gift, nature’s paté.
Carciofi alla Romana is a dish of tender, braised artichokes, usually paired down to stem and heart, flavored with mentuccia, a kind of wild mint. It’s the second most famous artichoke dish in Rome (the first being carciofi alla giudia, with big fried ones that look like crisped-up sunflowers). Mentuccia is a type of calamint used in Lazio and in Southern Italy with artichokes and mushrooms in particular. It’s also great with cecis and white beans. I grew mentuccia this summer ,and it took off like crazy in its little pot. I can’t imagine finding it in New York during the winter, but I’ve discovered that more or less equal parts spearmint and marjoram, though not an exact replica, get to the spirit of thing.
Preparing artichokes has frequently been a fraught experience for me. The globe variety we have here is similar to what Romans use for this preparation (the Romanesco type is rounder and usually left with a longer stem). Any big, fat artichoke involves a lot of whittling away to get it fork-ready and to my thinking produces a ton of waste. When I dump a pile of leaves and trimmings into the garbage I get a guilty feeling that makes all my pulling and scraping seem wanton. To avoid that angst and labor, I look for the baby ones. They’re a cinch to clean, no chokes, and hardly any tough leaves. These babies are actually stunted globes that happen to be lower on the stalk and don’t get as much sun, so they stop growing before developing much that’s inedible. They’re an agricultural shortcut.
I’ve just started finding good looking California artichokes, both big and baby, in my markets.They seem about a month early—strange, but I’m not complaining. If you’ve never made Carfiofi alla Romana, you should give it a try. The reduced braising liquid, a mix of the artichoke juices, olive oil, garlic, wine, and the mint, offers a unique taste, like tamed earth. I like the dish best just slightly warm, or at room temperature. Try serving it alone as a first course, followed by pan-seared lamb chops, perhaps. But it’s also excellent as part of an antipasto offering.
Carciofi alla Romana
The juice from 2 lemons
About 15 baby artichokes
10 large sprigs spearmint
10 large sprigs marjoram
2 garlic cloves, roughly chopped
Extra-virgin olive oil
A glass of Frascati or another light, unoaked white wine
Coarse black pepper
Pour the lemon juice into a large bowl, saving about a tablespoon of it to use later. Fill the bowl with cold water.
Cut about a half inch off the tops of the artichokes. Pull off a few layers of tough, outer leaves, and then peel and trim the stem. Discard the trimmings, and drop each trimmed artichoke, as you finish working with it, into the lemon water, to stop oxidation.
Put the mint, marjoram, garlic, a tablespoon or so of olive oil, and a touch of salt in a food processor, and pulse until the herbs are nicely minced.
Drain the artichokes and dry them as best you can.
Stuff a little of the herb mixture between the leaves of each artichoke.
Get out a large, heavy bottomed pan that will hold all the artichokes (cast iron or enamel will both work well). Add about 3 tablespoons of olive oil ,and get it hot over medium heat. Add the artichokes, seasoning them with a little salt, and sauté, turning them in the oil, until fragrant and glistening, about 3 minutes or so. Add the wine, and let it bubble for a few seconds. Add about ⅓ cup of warm water. Cover the pan, and let the artichokes braise, turning them every so often, until they’re just fork tender. This should take about 20 minutes, depending on the size of your artichokes. Uncover the pan in the last few minutes of cooking to reduce the liquids. You should have just enough moisture to form a light glaze on the artichokes. Season with a drizzle of fresh olive oil, coarse black pepper, and a squeeze of lemon juice.
Serve warm or at room temperature.