When In Rome, Eat Artichokes

We start in Rome.

allaromana3

When in Roma, eat artichokes alla Romana or alla Giudea. You wont regret it.

Alice and I had a Chrismas holiday together with Alice’s brother, Chris. He’d never been to Italy before so we showed him around Rome, Florence, Venice, Milan and Turin. I never get tired of going back to these places. There is always more to explore and discover, especially on a culinary level.

For our first lunch we were directed to Da Tonino, (Via del governo vecchio, 18, 00186 – Roma (RM) Italia Cell.333 5870779 )MAP
A hole in the wall kind of establishment which served good, honest and generous portions of flavoursome  food. In some respects, this first lunch of my holiday was the most memorable, even more than our Christmas lunch. I have simple tastes and I’m a total sucker for food without pretense. I do appreciate talented chefs experimenting with new fusion of flavours  and skillfully presenting dishes, but the simple, the rustic, the humble and the down to earth gets me much more excited.

On this day Da Tonino offered Carciofi alla Romana as a side dish, the most Roman of Roman artichoke recipes. Buttery tender, a knife will go through these with very little resistance, which is just how we ate them, with very little resistance.  These artichokes are virtually poached with a little water, garlic, olive oil, salt and mentuccia.

I’ve yet to work out what mentuccia is called in English. There is conflicting information out there so allow me to spread the confusion. In her book, Celebrating Italy, Carol Field says “the Romans have a delicate wild mint called mentuccia; a combination of rosemary and sage leaves gives a fine approximation of its taste.”1   My local herb farmer says that it’s just a wild mint which really just tastes a lot like regular mint but slightly sweeter. The truth is any of these herbs are good and parsley is also often used in this dish. I like to use mint or the wild mint whenever it’s available.

Carciofi Alla Romana

Ingredients (serves 4)

8 artichokes (the Romanesco variety are preferred, but not absolutely essential)

3 garlic cloves

1 small handful of parsley leaf

2 stems of mint or wild mint (leaves attached)

1 lemon

extra virgin olive oil

salt & pepper

Method

Firtsly, finely chop the washed parsley leaf and  garlic cloves together. Place into a bowl and add some salt and pepper and moisten generously with some olive oil.

Clean and Prepare the artichoke as in the video below. if you want to make them a little more presentable you can trim the end off the leaves evenly.

Using a lot of care gently ease the leaves apart with your fingers, only enough to be able to insert some of the seasoned herb and garlic mixture.

When you have open up the leaves a little, place some of your prepared garlic and herb mixture in the spaces you’ve created in the artichokes.

Now, squeeze  them shut again in order to keep the contents tightly jammed in there.

You will need a pan or pot tall enough to accommodate the entire height of your artichokes.(stems included)

Generously drizzle some extra virgin olive oil into your pot or pan. In some recipes, it can be as generous as two fingers high. That seems excessive to me so I go with a pan bottom completely covered with oil.

Place your artichokes into the pan with the stem end pointing up. It is important at this stage to ensure that your pan is big enough to accommodate all your artichokes but not too big that they have any room to move. They must be tightly packed in the pan.

If you have any extra stem left over, cut them into pieces big enough to fit in to the gaps between the artichokes.

Season the entire contents of the pan with salt and pepper.

Tear up the mint leaves and sprinkle them onto the artichokes.

Add a large glass of water to the pan.

Place a tight lid on to the pan and cook on a moderate heat for about 30 minutes or until the artichokes are tender. A toothpick should find no resistance in penetrating the stem. It’s important that the artichokes are not over cooked so that they disfigure. They should retain their shape and integrity.

Carefully remove them from the pan and place on a serving platter as a side dish. The remaining juice should be a flavour packed reduction of the water and oil.

Variations on this recipe include the addition of a mild anchovy to the herb and garlic mixture, omitting the garlic from stuffing of the leaves and putting it directly into the pan finely chopped, using much more oil and enough water to reach the base of the stem. Any of these will yield good results.

Traditionally in Rome these are served at the beginning of a meal or as a side dish with roast lamb, or fried lamb brains, or an assortment of lamb offal.

Campo dei Fiori

Below you will see a video of a fruit and vegetable vendor in Campo Dei Fiori, Rome, preparing artichokes with some very nifty knife work, for a lady customer.

While he was doing that, I was chatting to the lady about what she had in mind for them. “Alla Romana” was the answer, “and don’t throw away the stems, they’re the best bit.” I hear warning bells when people say, “this or that is the best bit”. To me it always makes me approach those parts with caution. But not in this case, only lazy cooks would throw away an artichoke stem. When the stems are cleaned properly, they are beautifully fleshy and give you more artichoke bang for your buck.

The Preferred Artichoke of Rome

The Preferred Artichoke of Rome, Romanesco

This is the video I took of the expert artichoke handler in Campo dei Fiori in Rome. Have a look at this masterful preparation of an artichoke. For this you’ll need a very sharp knife and a deft hand. You’ll notice once he has cleaned it all, he applies lemon juice directly onto it. Then he trims the stem, leaving about 5 centimetres attached.

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Below are some similarly prepared chokes with the stem still uncleaned. this is more convenient to sell as they are less likely to discolour.

prep alla romana

For another brief article about artichokes in Rome check here on New York Times.

Rome; A Photographic Portrait follows:

Romulus and Remus started Rome started on mother’s milk. I love the water droplets on the teats.

In keeping with ‘Rome is full of ruins’ theme

Evening traffic by the old stadium.

Still standing and still beautiful.

1.Field C, Celebrating Italy, The Tastes and Traditions of Italy as Revealed Through Its Feasts, Festivals and Sumptuous Feasts, p337.

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6 Responses to “When In Rome, Eat Artichokes”

  1. Paul Cappleman says:

    Just had my 45th birthday in Rome, we discovered the artichokes by accident and never looked back. It’s now 2 days since we came back to the uk and have already started to re-create this fantastic dish. They are in the pan as I type!!
    Can’t wait

  2. mikey says:

    Thanks Ilaria. I knew someone would come back with info.

  3. Ilaria says:

    Mentuccia is calamint. Nepitella in Tuscany. I think dragoncello, which is terragon, and articiocchi also go well together.

  4. angelica says:

    I love this video with the street music in the background and his knife to thumb cutting technique. x

  5. mikey says:

    Thanks Jim. Good to hear the artichokes performed under pressure. I hope you spent the time you saved cooking, sitting down and eating.

  6. Jim Jarvie says:

    Artichokes alla Romana was a wonderfully simple dish. If a pressure cooker is used cooking time can be cut to under 10 minutes. Looking forward to more recipes on the best artichoke site on the web!

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