What comes to mind when you think of Italian food? Pasta? For sure. Tomatoes galore? Garlic? Gelatto? Definitely. The food surprise for me from this trip was the Italians’ variety of artichoke varieties and preparations. Say carciofi (“car-CHEE-oh-fee”) fast in Italian. My first evening in Florence, I sought out this appetizer, on the recommendation of my friend Patty in Williamsburg, carpaccio de carciofi. These are fresh small artichokes, thinly sliced, dressed in olive oil and topped with parmesan. This was so incredibly delish and fresh and tender, I can’t tell you. How do they slice these???
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I took the train to Rome the next morning, and the artichokes continued to pop up everywhere, on every restaurant menu in multiple dishes, and frequently also on display, in front of restaurants, arranged casually with lemons in a crate~
Or in the window, artfully arranged instead of flowers~
By the time Saturday morning arrived, after several days of eating artichoke dishes, I finally got to see what I was long waiting for, the full array and fantastic display of artichokes at the Campo de’ Fiori market in Rome. As with the rest of Europe, the area of origin is written for each product. Lazio is the region which includes Rome, so you will see many of the artichokes here bearing the Lazio name. Truly, Roman Artichokes~
Beautiful all, violet tinged, smaller and more delicate and sometimes thornless, unlike our prickly globe artichokes.
There was such a beautiful variety, but I was late for my cooking class after a few chats at the market, so it was snap snap snap before off I went across the Tiber.
Wonderful, set off by citrus in the background; Carciofi Romani; these about $1.50 each.
Most of the varieties available are smaller than those we see here in the States; the impression was fresh and tender~
One vendor had the entire plant wrapped up as if just cut that morning; this gives the full sense of the plant~ the small tender shoots at the bottom and the big globe at the top~
Many vendors in the market sold the artichokes already trimmed. I noticed this also in many small food stores around Rome. Hey, I thought if I trimmed an artichoke a la Julia Child I was ahead. These were even more amazing. Here they are at the market, bobbing in lemon water~
There is an art to this, and I will address that shortly, but here you can see a professional Roman trimming an artichoke~
And then, it is rather unceremoniously dumped into a rather grotty bucket of lemon water, on the cobblestones~
In Rome, I took a 5 hour cooking class from Chef Andrea Consoli, who owns a restaurant in Travestere in addition to teaching cooking classes. I can’t say enough good things about this class; it was fun, it was instructional, it was informative. It was all a cooking class should be. More on Chef Andrea later, but what was so impressive to me was that he “made sense” of what I had seen at the markets and on the menus, and gave me the insider’s view. Andrea taught us that the prize artichoke is the Violeto, a small and generally “choke-less” artichoke~
For our cooking class, we made for "starter” Roman Style Artichokes. We used the Violeto or “chokeless” artichokes, which Chef Andrea is explaining to us here should be trimmed down by about 1/3 to eliminate the inedible parts~
We trimmed the tough outer leaves, and used the paring knife at this angle, using just the sharp tip, to trim off the inedible part of the leaves~The top and stem are quickly rubbed with lemon to prevent oxidation. This is the same manner in which you find the artichokes for sale around Rome~
This is a vendor from Campo de’ Fiori, who displayed everything in baskets or on on fern leaves, or both. Amazing….
For our cooking class, we stuffed the trimmed centers with Roman mint a very mild mint perhaps closer to our parsley;
Steamed they in olive oil and water~
These were fantastic; I ordered them two other times in Rome at restaurants and asked if the artichokes were Violeto or the larger globe type with choke, called Chimaroli or I think Chimari. Both times the “Carciofi Romani” I had in restaurants had the choke or “fur” as Chef Andrea says. Here is the dish as we prepared for our cooking class; the entire piece was edible, tender and delish~
Back in Florence, we had Carciofi Friti, or fried artichokes; see pic below. Again, no choke, no fur. This was AMAZING. My niece who is studying in Florence this semester says this is the dish she asked her home-stay Mama to prepare for her for her birthday recently. I tried it here with “baby artichokes” sliced in 8’s and dipped in egg and sprinkled with flour. Total disappointment. I’m chasing these artichokes down in France next month; France has Violeto too…
Meanwhile, back in the States, I have started to ask around to the farmers. What kinds of artichokes are grown here? It seems we love the big huge fat furry globe ones. Believe it or not, there is a California Artichoke Advisory Board. You can see a list of artichoke varieties HERE. The Italian varieties seem to be missing, but I will be cooking these in France this spring. Though I dare say, the French don’t celebrate the artichoke the way the Italians so. Also check out a few Saveur dishes HERE.
This is making me hungry. It’s too bad I have two “frost bitten” furry chokes from yesterday’s market to prepare tonight, but they will do.
When in Rome, please do eat all the artichokes you can manage. They are great for your liver and for reduction of cholesterol. As with most of the foods in Italy, there are certain hidden health benefits, in addition to just eating “fresh” or “seasonal.”