Italian Recipes: the art of artichokes

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Native to Mediterranean areas, culinary use of artichokes dates back to Roman times. It was in Sicily however that they are said to have first been cultivated. These grown artichokes then travelled up the coast of the Italian peninsula, going to Naples from where Filippo Strozzi bought the spikey vegetable to Florence. The Venetians found it quite curious when it arrives to their shores in approximately 1480. From there, it is said to have been taken to France, the Netherlands and then England throughout the 1500s, before heading on to the United States in the 1800s, taken over by both French and Spanish immigrants.

Italians have thus had several centuries to perfect the art of cooking artichokes, and perfect it they have!

Today, artichokes are featured on ‘antipasto’ dishes, in first courses (risotto, pasta, lasagne…), stuffed and served as mains or as a side dish (either on their own or in salads). They can also be served on pizza.

As artichokes oxidise quickly, it is best to have a bowl of water with a good squeeze of lemon juice in which to keep the cut artichokes whilst prepping the other pieces. This will stop them turning black whilst preparing other parts.

To prepare artichokes requires firstly chopping off the woodiest part of the stem. There is then to remove the more fibrous outer leaves. The spiky tips (thorns) of the top of the artichoke are usually cut off also.

Once the harder outer shells have been removed, it is important to discard the ‘fuzzy’ choke in the centre.  If wanting to keep the artichoke whole, this can be done opening up the leaves (making sure you’ve already trimmed the thorns off first!), before using a teaspoon to scoop out the furry centre. Be aware though, it’s trickier than it sounds! Otherwise, cut the artichoke in half long ways for easy access to scrape out the choke.

To cook artichokes, they can be steamed, cooked on the grill, or even eaten raw. It is quite common to preserve them in oil to have this delicious thistle year-round.

A yummy artichoke salad recipe sees the artichokes prepared with the hard outer leaves removed until the layer of light yellowy-green leaves. Once you think you’ve removed enough leaves, you’ll usually have to remove another layer or two! Next, cut the artichoke in half long-ways and remove the choke, trying to keep the rest of the leaves attached. With a sharp knife and steady hand, thinly slice the artichokes into lengths. Once cut, keep in lemony water so the leaves don’t oxidise. When all are cut, remove the artichokes from the water and pat dry. Place in a bowl then quickly coat with a good dose of extra virgin olive oil, another squeeze of lemon juice, a pinch of salt and a few grinds of black pepper. Shave some good quality parmesan atop before mixing. Make it even more special with a drizzle of high-quality, aged balsamic vinegar. Garnish with some more parmesan and serve as a refreshing starter or side dish.

You can also prepare the raw artichokes in the same way then mix with a good amount of rocket leaves for a unique summer salad recipe. In this case, even a regular balsamic will suffice, although it is also delicious without.

Artichokes can be cooked in a pot with a generous splash of olive oil. Left covered for around 30 minutes over a low heat, they will become nice and soft. Once cooked, they can be garnished and eaten as is or let to cook, placed in sterilised jars, then covered with olive oil to preserve. Some people prefer to cook with lemon juice and/or vinegar. These are delicious chopped up and served in salads, on a hors d’oeuvres platter, on bread as a ‘crostini’… or eaten straight out of the jar when no-one is looking!

To stuff the whole artichokes, once the raw artichokes have been prepared as above, open up the heart and stuff it. One of our favourites is to stuff the artichokes with a mix of grated Pecorino Romano cheese (or parmesan), breadcrumbs, Italian parsley, chopped garlic and a pinch of salt. You can pimp it up with the addition of crumbed Italian sausage or pancetta added in also. Mix together, stuff the artichoke (using a teaspoon to pump the mix into all the ‘nooks and crannies’) then top with some more cheese. In a large pot, place a small amount of water then the artichoke hearts, cover the pot and steam for around 30 minutes until nice and soft, with gooey cheese on top. Enjoy hot!

Discover more about Italian recipes in one of our hands-on cooking classes in Florence and Cooking Classes in a Tuscan Villa.

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