Artichokes are back in local markets and welcome they are, too. Mine are moretti, according to the label grown at an agricultural cooperative over on the Tuscan coast called Terre dell’Etruria. Artichokes have a long season, lasting well into the spring, so we’ll be featuring them at Villa Campestri’s cooking class in late March—a perfect contorno for Easter or Passover lamb.
(For more on that see my earlier post, http://nancyharmonjenkins.com/topics/italian-food-and-travel/2012-la-cucina-toscana-and-tuscan-extra-virgin/)
Artichokes can be spiny or round, spinosi or tondeggianti. It seems that the spiny ones are first on the market, followed later in the winter by round ones like the famous romaneschi or mamme that Roman cooks turn into fabulous deep-fried carciofi alla giudea (more on that later in the season).
I should add that “spinosi” refers to the sharply pointed leaves and not to the annoyingly prickly hairs that must be removed from the center of most American artichokes. (I’ve called these “the choke,” in the past and that’s apparently incorrect but I don’t know what the right term is. In Italian it’s called fieno or straw.) I can’t understand why American farmers haven’t figured out how to grow Italian artichokes without that irritating inner junk—I suspect the market would be huge.
These moretti are so tender they can be sliced very thin and served in a salad with a few sherds of parmigiano reggiano and a healthy dollop of new Tuscan oil—truly a marriage meant to be. For now, however, I’m frying my artichokes, first trimming them of the tough outer leaves and spiny tops. I slice them fairly thin (not as thin as for the salad though) and sauté them in olive oil (last year’s oil, of course), or, for a change, deep-fry them in about an inch of oil. To deep-fry, the artichokes are trimmed, cut into quarters or eighths, depending on the size, and tossed into a bowl of acidulated water (to which the juice of a lemon has been added). Then, when I’m ready to fry, I heat oil in the old black-iron skillet to 360ºF, drain the artichokes without drying them, and toss the damp artichokes in flour with salt and pepper added. It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to fry them, crisp and gold on the outside, tender on the inside. With a spritz of lemon juice they make a great addition to the dinner menu—or indeed a delightful antipasto.