A few things slightly outside my culinary comfort zone: fish and shellfish; the Thanksgiving turkey; crepes (that flipping technique!); grilling; rhubarb; artichokes. I tend to overlook recipes with these things, but I'm working on it!
For the purposes of today's post, let's go back to that last one, artichokes. Don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan! - but I'd decided long ago that artichokes, or carciofi, were too cumbersome and complicated to prepare at home. They were beautiful to look at (like overgrown purple green flowers!) but seemed, well, a bit unfriendly, spiky and tough, almost defiant, if a vegetable can be so. I got my fill of the Roman carciofi alla romana and carciofi alla giudia in restaurants, paying a few euros more, yes, but preferring to leave the heavy-lifting to the restaurant chef.
I covered my former hesitations around frying in this post (turns out that huge pot of bubbling oil was a big old softie in the end). Encouraged, I'd thought I'd challenge myself again with some artichokes, but not just any artichokes! I'd also fry them, thus combining two culinary hurdles in one and taking a leap outside my comfort zone. The result were these carciofi alla giudia, a specialty of la cucina ebraica romana, or rather, Roman-Jewish cuisine (indeed, though Catholicism has always been the dominant force in Rome, the city also has a long history of Judaism -- Jewish communities in Rome have been recorded as far back as the second century BC). Roman-Jewish cuisine, like most of Italian cuisine, was born out of poverty and availability (artichokes were abundant and cheap) and a good dose of creativity.
So, the verdict? In the end, with the help of a good knife and a YouTube tutorial or two, I found that artichokes are quite easy to clean and pare down, and once you get the hang of it, kind of fun, bound to make you feel professional and chef-y. And when you fry them in abundant amounts of oil, they become tender on the inside and gloriously crispy on the outside, akin to a potato chip, luxuriously olive-oily, and perfectly addictive with a sprinkle of salt. They're almost too pretty to eat, rose-like before frying and then bright and sunflower-like after (I'd pick a bouquet of these over a bouquet of roses any day). Make these this Spring when artichokes are at their very best and thank me later.
A couple of notes: A few things I learned frying artichokes for the first time! I would recommend using a thermometer here to measure the oil temperature, if you can; on my guinea pig round, I found I needed to cook the artichokes longer on their second round to achieve the desired deeply brown crispiness rather than the recommended one minute, probably due to the fact that the oil temperature had been off on both the first and second fry (no matter though, in the end!) Note as well that I did not have enough oil on hand when I took these photographs (just 1 liter). This worked out fine, as I just turned the artichokes periodically with a slotted soon to get them fried; if you find yourself in this same situation, be sure to let the artichokes fry, unsettled, for a bit on each side to get them nice and brown -- don't move them around too much! You can strain your leftover oil into a jar and keep, with the lid screwed on tightly, in a cool dry place for your next round of frying -- check out this article on Serious Eats for the details. Check this post for more tips on frying.
For more fried fun, check out these suppli' all'amatriciana and these castagnole di ricotta. Looking for other super Roman recipes? I've got bucatini all'amatriciana, spaghetti alla gricia, tonnarelli cacio e pepe, cicoria alla romana, and these maritozzi, to name just a few. Looking for other Spring-y recipes? How about these prosciutto wrapped asparagus?
CARCIOFI ALLA GIUDIA
4 globe artichokes (called mammole if you're in Italy)
1.5 liters extra virgin olive oil
Paper towels or wax paper, to absorb the extra oil
Fill a large bowl with cold water. Add to it the juice of two lemons, and then the lemon halves themselves, being sure to rub a little lemon juice on your hands as well -- artichokes have the tendency to turn black when their leaves are removed, and can make the skin on your hands a little black too. Set aside the water and get to cleaning up your artichokes. Start by tearing off the tough outer leaves; you'll know you've reached the more tender ones when the color goes from purple green to pinkish green. Using a sharp knife, remove the tough bases of the leaves you've torn off.
Next, use your same sharp knife to remove any leaves and the tough outer layer of skin on the stem of the artichoke. Don't cut too deeply here; you want the stem to still be fairly sturdy so it holds up when it is fried.
The artichoke should at this point look somewhat rose-like. Place your cleaned artichoke in the bowl with the lemon water so it doesn't turn black as you prepare your other artichokes.
Your artichokes are now clean and ready to be fried! In a large pot, heat your olive oil over medium heat until it reaches about 145 degrees Celsius. Using tongs or a slotted spoon, place your artichokes in the oil. Let them fry for about 10-15 minutes, or until a fork can easily pierce the base of the artichoke (right above the step). Remove the artichokes to a plate lined with paper towels or wax paper, stems up, and let them sit for 20 minutes to let the extra oil drain off and turn off the heat on your pot.