16 April 2010

AUNTIE PASTA; Sweet Artichoke Dreams

SARONNO, Italy - Four out of the five fruttivendolos I passed walking around Saronno this morning had baskets of artichokes sitting out in front of their shops. It's the end of the season so the prices were good, but even so it didn't look like many people were buying them.

It stunned me to learn that there are about 90 different varieties of artichokes that grow in Italy. Some are smooth and fat, others are thin and have sharp thorns.The smooth ones grow primarily in Lazio and Puglia and are the type I used to eat when I was a kid. The prickly ones grow in Liguria, Sicily and Sardinia and the first time I saw them was when I lived in Genoa.

One Ligurian variety that has won the approval of the Slow Food movement comes from Perinaldo, a small hill town in the province of Imperia, near the border with France. The town is so small there are only 400 families who live there and out of those there are seven artichoke producers.

On the second Sunday in May Perinaldo hosts a food fair featuring their famous artichokes and the other local products, Taggiasca olives and olive oil.

I’m not an artichoke connoisseur, all I know is that the prickly and non-prickly artichokes are prepared in different ways. The fat, smooth ones, called Mammole, are often deep fried, as in Carciofi alla Giudea, or stuffed, like my Grandmother used to make them. The prickly ones, which are very tender, are often sliced very thin and eaten raw.

I remember the first time I cooked artichokes. I was using a recipe from my memory bank, based more on taste than technique. What I remembered was that my Grandmother cooked artichokes in the oven. She would cut the bottoms so the artichoke would stand up straight in a low baking dish. Then she would slice up a clove of garlic and slip the strips down in between the artichoke leaves. Next she would sprinkle the artichoke with the dried mintuccia her sister Mary had sent her from Italy, drizzle them with olive oil, add a little salt and pepper and into the oven they would go.

How long they cooked was anyone’s guess. I was only 5 years old so my little kid concept of time and actual time were not exactly in sync yet. But oh how I loved those artichokes. I remember peeling the leaves off one by one, oil all over my hands, my face, bits mintuccia stuck in my teeth, and my eyes rolling back in my head at the delicious flavor.

Fast forward to the part of my life when I was married with children and living in Philadelphia. One week I found artichokes at the Italian market and decided to cook them. I knew I was missing a key ingredient, the mintuccia, but I thought I would give them a go anyway. I brought them home, cleaned them up as much as you can clean up artichokes, sliced the bottoms, put them in a baking dish, stuck in the garlic slivers, drizzled them with olive oil, salt, pepper and closed the oven door. Then every half hour or so, I would wander back into the kitchen and peek into the oven to see if they were cooked yet.

An hour passed, then two. I fed the kids, gave them a bath and checked the artichokes. Nope. Not ready. Read the kids a story and put them to bed and checked the artichokes again. Nope Not ready yet. Nor were they going to be ready - ever. I finally went to bed at 11 PM, the artichokes brown and shriveled and as hard as a rock.

I don’t know when or how I finally discovered the crucial step I had missed in the care and cooking of artichokes. As it turns out you have to boil or steam before you put them in the oven. So now I know. Wednesday is market day in Saronno and I will go and buy artichokes. I will boil them and bake them and love every minute I spend eating them, even with oil on my hands and mintuccia in my teeth, and it will all be worth it.

If you would like a less messy way of eating artichokes you can prepare them like the Perinaldesi do. Their traditional recipes are relatively simple. They either cook them in the oven with Parmesan cheese and mushrooms, or fry them with a little garlic and parsley.

Or you can try this recipe from Chef Roberto Donna, adapted by StarChefs.com

Potato, Artichoke and Parmesan Cheese Tort
4 large artichokes, cleaned and thinly sliced at the last minute
4 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
4 ounces Parmesan cheese, thinly sliced
4 ounces melted butter
1 medium onion, sliced, cooked and caramelized
2 fresh thyme sprigs, chopped
Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

To prepare the tort:
Preheat the oven at 350°F. Take a 6-inch non-stick pan, grease the bottom and sides.

Alternate layers of potato, artichokes and Pecorino cheese; sprinkle each layer with onions, thyme, butter, salt and pepper, until you fill the pan entirely (go over the top if you want, it will shrink).

Place in the oven, cover with foil and cook for 1 hour. Let it sit for 10 minutes. Unmold from the non-stick pan and serve warm.
Buon Appetito.

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