If I was stranded on a desert island with the possibility of choosing only one vegetable, I would not hesitate for a moment to ask for carciofi. My fascination with this vegetable since living in Tuscany, has never, never abated. I love everything about it: its chamelian forms and names - elongated elegance like a champagne flute, chubby 'mamma's' like full blown peonies, its colour from emerald green to purple and all the hues between, its scales and spikes resisting attack, the snap and pop of the leaves reluctantly giving up their protection to your pull, the fascination of getting to its tender heart, it's amazing nutritional values and its adaptability. Of course I would also have to ask for a supply of extra virgin olive oil, salt, garlic, parsley and a hunk of parmesan with which to ring the changes.
If it hadn't been for my Florentine husband's family coat of arms, I would have used this plucky little vegetable as our website symbol. As it is, sometimes I am able to persuade Marco to read out to our restaurant guests when we've prepared fried archichokes, Pablo Neruda's delightful "Ode to An Archichoke"
"The archichoke\of delicate heart\erect\in its battle-dress,builds\its minimal cupola;\keeps stark\in its scallop of\scales...\armed for a skirmish..."
Infront of the cariofi's 'scallop of scales' it's easy to feel daunted. I certainly did when first presented with a basket of them, but having seen humungous piles of them over their 6 month season in every local food market, my curiosity armed me for the skirmish. Fearlessness is the key. Practice will conquer. The rewards are well worth the effort.
I was lucky enough to have my artist friend (and amazing cook) from San Gimignano, introduce me to this, at first sight, unfathomanable little fellow in his spike tipped armour. Once you've got the hang of turning it clockwise in one hand and plucking off one leaf at a time with the free hand, until the inner leaves, gradually changing colour, become a tender lemon, there's something very therapeutic about the pop and snap as every leaf gives.
It's no good trying to minimize on waste. There is an almost upsetting amount of leaf to discard. I once made a soup with the leaves, cooking them in water, whizzing and then sieving them. The soup was wonderful but I've never repeated the exercise as it was so time consuming. Maybe if I was on that dessert island I would do just that.
Keep the stalks on and pare the outside dark green layer taking care if possible not to snap it off, although if this happens don't throw it away as they are full of flavour and Tuscans will sometimes use just the stalks to make a risotto.
Keep some of the inner leaves to make a carciofi broth cooking them in water with a few pepper corns, salt and a couple of cloves of garlic. This broth is perfect for making a carciofi risotto.
Have ready a bowl of cold water into which has been squeezed the juice of half a lemon. Carciofi will turn almost instantly brown the minute they are cut. Popping them into the lemon water will prevent this.
Once the outer leaves have been pulled off, the heart needs trimming. Frugality with trimming at this stage will end with a mouthful of sharp hard needle-like points. Aim to cut off about two thirds of the length of the archichoke from the pointed tips to the base. At this point only the tender heart and peeled stem should be left.
Almost there. Now inspect the inside of the archichoke. Very often at the centre of the heart is a lot of fluffy looking stuffing - hay - 'fieno' as they call it here. This absolutely must be cut out. Then pop the archichoke into the lemon water while preparing the others.
Once they are all at this stage they are ready for using in many different recipes.
The simplest of all and one of the most power-packed all-in-one measl imaginable is -
Insalata di Carciofi with Shavings of Parmesan and a Drizzle of Extra Virgin Olive Oil:
I simply love this salad and make it often. Slice the prepared archichokes first vertically in half going clean through the stalk. Then slice extremely thinly vertially (this is very important as otherwise you will be chewing for ever on thick pieces of archichoke). Work as quickly as possible to avoid the archichoke turning brown. Arrange the slices on a plate, sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and sprinkle the lemon juice all over. Toss a little to ensure all the slices are coated. Take shavings off the hunk of parmesan and toss these over the archichoke slices (do not substitute with grated parmesan, it just isn't the same). Drizzle generously with extra virgin olive oil. Accompany with good country bread to soak up the finger-licking good juices.
Slice the cleaned archicoke vertically very finely and toss in a frying pan with extra virgin olive oil, crushed garlic and finely chopped parsley. Add salt and freshly ground pepper and cook on a gentle heat stirring every now and then until they are tender. At the point that they begin to dry up, add a slosh of white wine and continue to cook until tender - about another 10 minutes. Taste and adjust.
These are delicious as an accompanying vegetable, on their own with a chunk of bread, as a sauce for pasta, or for using as the base for an archichoke risotto (adding the carciofi leaf broth).
My Florentine Mother-in-Law's Carciofi Fritti - Fried Archichokes:
A word of advice - do far more of these than you think it possible will be eaten as they disappear in an instant. One carciofi will make 8 pieces but one and a half carciofi per person are not too many in my experience.
Prepare the batter at least a couple of hours before you need it. Mix flour and fridge-cold sparkling mineral water until the batter is smooth and forms 'ribbons' when you lift the fork (this is a surprizingly liquid mix but don't worry as you don't want much of the batter to stick to the archichoke). Do not add salt. Place in the fridge until you are ready to use it.
Clean the archicokes as described above placing in the lemon water until ready to use. Cut each cleaned archichoke vertically into 8 pieces replacing in the water until ready to fry.
Heat the oil in a deep fry pan. I always use olive oil. Shake the excess water off the archichoke segments and dip into the prepared batter. Place a few at a time into the hot oil taking care not to let them drop and splash. Fry until golden. Lift out onto kitchen paper and sprinkly immediately with fine sea salt.
Eat immediately once they are all fried as they are not so good cold.