Zio Aldo’s Artichokes
Osteria da Zio Aldo and his Fried Artichoke Recipe
Last week I went to Puglia for what turned out to be a little misadventure. I went down for the San Ferdinando Fiera del Carciofo /Artichoke Fair. It turned out that there were no artichokes being cooked but only being promoted. I was pretty disappointed as it was a seven hour train ride to the other end of Italy from where I live. The train ride was not at all disappointing, it was stunning countryside and seaside and well worth it. I must say though, that San Ferdinando was not what I thought it was going to be and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone, anytime. I used the opportunity to meet a few locals who knew a few things about artichokes and one guy who is worth a mention is Zio Aldo.
On the way back to Turin I had an hour and a half in Foggia (map) around lunchtime, before I had to catch a train. Incidentally, it was the last train before there was a 24 hour train strike. I called Alice, my wife, to ask if she could look up the slowfood guide for a restaurant in anywhere in Foggia. While she looked on Google maps, she directed me, to an osteria, over the phone. I knew I was going to be a little early and I doubted I was going to be served when I saw that the lights were out, with absolutely no activity to be seen or heard. I called out to get some attention and was greeted by Aldo, a grey haired, rotund slightly eccentric owner / chef of this restaurant which was jammed with character. He was happy to see I was alone as he said he could keep me company as he’d been in there since 7 that morning making a ragu.
I didn’t waste any time and enquired whether he had any artichokes on the menu.
“Too early” he said. “They’re not tender enough at this time of the season, we need some colder weather” My trip to Puglia was turning out to be a real bummer in terms of finding artichoke joy. One thing for sure was that I wasn’t going to leave without having lunch at Aldo’s. The irony was that I had to have a quick lunch in the only slowfood listed restaurant in town. He sat me down, we chatted for a while about artichokes and various vegetables. He decided what I was going to have so I just sat back and waited, all the while I was extracting as much information as possible about his thoughts on artichokes.
I told him I was going around Italy scoping out artichoke recipes.
“You need to come back and spend 4 or 5 days with me and we’ll go through a few things together” he said.
I proposed to Aldo that when I next go down to Foggia to vistit that we have a “Carciofata” which basically means, a dining event based solely on artichokes.
“Next time you come down,” he said “I’ll make sure there is an antipasto, a first course, a second course, side dishes, and even sweets with artichokes”
“Sure Aldo, as long as I’m in the kitchen with you, helping out:
“Of course, I have no secrets” he said.
He proudly believes that Puglia and particularly Foggia is the capital of vegetables and vegetarian dishes. He told me people think he’s a bit strange because he talks to his vegetables and legumes. When he has them in his pots or pans, they smile at him and say ‘you can eat me now’ It sounded like a nice relationship he has with food and a great attitude to bring into the kitchen.
He has over 30 different olive oils to offer his guests at the table. Each one, slightly different, complimenting different dishes on his menu.
Aldo went on to say,
“Once Italian chefs have abandoned the desire to get olive oil at 2 Euro a litre we will have made a great stride ahead, once Italian chefs have abandoned the desire to get pasta at 80 euro cents a kilo, we will have made a giant stride ahead. How can we, in Italy, where you only pay 5 euro for a top quality oil, skimp on quality? Most of my work is in the raw ingredients, top quality ingredients produce outstanding dishes, that’s no secret.”
I asked him for his all time favourite artichoke dish and this is it.
Fried Artichokes by Aldo
2 Tablespoons beer
1 teaspoon grappa
1/2 cup of flour
Prepare the artichokes. Cut them into quarters and put straight into lemon water.
Blanch & refresh and allow them to drain well.
Make a batter with egg, a little beer and a dash of grappa.
Pat dry the artichokes with a kitchen cloth or paper towel.
Dust the quarter chokes in flour and shake off any excess flour.
Dip into the batter and allow any excess batter to drip off.
Fry them in plenty of olive oil til golden brown.
Place on paper towel to absorb excess oil,
Salt and go for it.
I’m not sure if Aldo would be offended but I found a little squeeze of lemon juice on them was also interesting. There’s also no reason why you can’t prepare the stems in this way too. Try them.
He also told me another one, which I am yet to try but will later in the season.
BBQ Roasted Artichokes
Prepare a large pot or tub with water, salt and some olive oil. Bathe the whole artichokes, don’t remove the stem or any on the outer leaves in the tub. You can leave them in the water for the amount of time it takes to get a barbecue (BBQ) ready. The best BBQ is obviously a wood and coal fired type. This will give you the unmistakable smoky aroma and flavour through the artichokes. Once your BBQ is up to heat, simply remove the chokes from the water, shake off any excess water and place the whole artichoke on the grill if really hot or even directly on the embers. Use the stem of the artichoke as a handle and keep turning it occasionally so that cook evenly. The outside of the choke will burn so don’t worry about that because it’s the inside we are interested in. The cooking should take about 40 – 50 minutes.
Open them up with a knife, be sure to remove any hair in the centre of the choke.
Dress with some extra virgin olive oil, salt and off you go.
You can also work you way in to the middle form the outer leaves one leave at a time.
You decide. Either way, I’m sure it’ll be yummy.