Caponata di carciofi

I'm keeping my promise to post slightly more conscientious recipes in the first month of the new year -- you know, recipes free of butter/sugar/cheese and more like this soup here -- which actually hasn't been difficult at all. Despite the name of this blog, I actually am a big fan of vegetables -- truly, I am! -- and in the Winter everything from fennel to broccoli to kale to cauliflower are at their very best. Most importantly off all of course, there are -- 

 **drumroll**

A R T I C H O K E S. 
(carciofi)

That’s right! My very favorite vegetable is back in season and will be here through to the Spring in all its spiky, emerald-violet splendor, and I couldn’t be more pleased. Rome – already a city that holds a special place in its (eternal) heart for veggies like pleasantly bitter cicoria and crisp, unruly puntarelle --  positively reveres artichokes (side note, I love living in a place who cares this much about vegetables). In markets here in the capital, you’ll find them stacked in impressive displays where they look far more like flowers than vegetables; inspected, admired hauled away by the bagful by the home cook; or see them artfully whittled down to their pale green interior in a flash, perfect for the cook with a little less time on their hands. In restaurants, you’ll find them fried whole until golden and potato chip-crisp (alla giudia), or braised until silky with garlic and parsley (alla romana) OR tossed with guanciale, Pecorino, and pasta (fresh tonnarelli, if you’re lucky). In my kitchen, you’ll find them cooked slowly with peas and fava beans to make vignarola, layered with pasta, bechamel, and cheese to make an artichoke lasagna, or, most recently, in this caponata di carciofi, aka artichoke caponata.

Now! If you’re thinking that caponata – hailing from Sicily, fyi -- is usually made with eggplant, you’d be right. Carla Tomasi – genius that she is! – taught me however that caponata can also be made with carciofi in place of the eggplant, neatly bringing this dish from Summer in to Winter and Spring. In true Tomasi fashion, this dish was a dream – a symphony of sweet, sour, salty, buttery, all at once! – and in true Bruzzese fashion, I knew at once that I had to recreate it in my own kitchen, mainly to have it on hand for eating whenever I pleased. This is my slightly altered version of the caponata I saw Carla make – a little more tomato, a little less sugar, fewer capers than the original recipe as written – and I find it to be, well, quite perfect. It’s tangy from the vinegar but also a little dolce from the sugar and slowly cooked red onion, which tempers the tomatoes perfectly; the pine nuts are crunchy, the olives briney, the capers punchy, the raisins sweet and juicy, and the artichokes! The artichokes here are mild and buttery and perfect against the backdrop of varied flavors, making for a dish where every bite is different and interesting. Speaking of artichokes – don’t be intimidated by them! Once you get past their sharp, leafy exterior, they're big softies, trust me – the artichoke prep process is really no big deal, and I actually find the whole thing to be sort of therapeutic (some people have knitting, or yoga; I have carciofi cleaning). 

A few more reasons to make this caponata, not that you needed them: it’s vegetarian! It’s vegan! It’s a substantial main for any vegetarian or vegan! it’s better when made ahead, has lots of nutritious things, and might be the best thing you make in 2020. 

A couple of notes: This is a good make ahead dish; the flavors improve the longer the caponata sits. It is quite flexible; feel free to alter the quantity of capers, pine nuts, raisins, etc to your taste as I did to mine. Finally, I chose to boil the artichokes here, but you can also saute them or even fry them if you want something a little richer. Also: my weekends are so very busy lately that I’ve not been able to cook and photograph, meaning this recipe was tested on weekday evenings, MEANING that there was no good light to take nice photos. Will update soon with photos taken with my trusty camera – in the meantime, I’ve shared those I took at the class where I originally learned this dish. 

Looking for other artichoke recipes? I've got these carciofi alla giudia, these carciofi alla romana, and this lasagne ai carciofi. Looking for other caponata recipes? I've got this classic eggplant caponata.


CAPONATA DI CARCIOFI
Recipe loosely adapted from a recipe given to me from Carla Tomasi, via a Sicilian cookbook (still have to get the name!) Serves 4.

Ingredients:

3 large artichokes (I used carciofi romaneschi)
Olive oil
4 celery stalks
3 tablespoons capers, ideally packed in salt
About 4 ounces (100 grams) olives, pitted and sliced, whatever kind you like 
1 large red onion
1 1/2 cups (350mL) tomato sauce or good quality crushed tomatoes
3-4 tablespoons yellow raisins, soaked in water
1-2 tablespoons (about 12.5 to 25 grams) sugar
1/4 cup (50mL) red wine vinegar
A handful of basil leaves
A handful of pine nuts 

Directions:
1.) Put a put of water on to boil -- you will need this to cook the celery and artichokes. Trim, peel, and slice the onion thickly. In a large deep frying pan, warm 4 tablespoons or so of olive oil over medium-low heat, add the onion, and cook until soft and translucent.

2.) While the onion is cooking, get to work on your artichokes! Squeeze the juice of a lemon into a large bowl of cold water, add the lemon to the water, and set aside. If the stems of your artichokes are very long, cut them off only leaving a bit of stem attached to the artichoke. Using a sharp knife (though I prefer to use a vegetable peeler for this), trim away fibrous outer layer of the stem; you can tell what needs to be removed by looking at the base of the stem. You will see white in the middle surrounded by green -- the goal here is to get rid of the green so we only have the tender white part of the stem. Once trimmed, cut the stem in half and then in to smaller pieces. Put in to your bowl of lemon-y water. 

3.) Next, work your way around the artichoke and remove the tough outer leaves to expose the tender inner leaves. Cut off the spiky ends of the artichoke globe, then use a sharp knife to cut off the bits of artichoke base remaining from where you removed the tough leaves. Detach the trimmed stem and chop it in to pieces (lengthwise), then cut the trimmed globes into 8 wedges, removing away any hairy choke. Immediately, drop the wedges artichoke into the bowl of lemon-y water. 

4.) Trim the celery stalks of any tough ends or strings and cut in half, and then in to smaller pieces. Add the celery to your boiling water and cook until tender but still with a bite, about 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, add them directly to the pan with the onion (keep the water boiling, as you will need it for the artichokes) and cook for about two minutes. 
 Add the tomato sauce or crushed tomatoes to the pan, and cook for another few minutes and then add the capers, olives, raisins, and pine nuts, stirring well. 

5.) Add a good amount of salt to the same boiling water you used for the celery (this will flavor the artichokes) and then add your artichokes to the water. Cook for 5-7 minutes, or until tender but still with a little bite. Drain.


6.) While the artichokes are cooking, make a well in the middle of the pan and add the sugar and the vinegar to it, allowing the sugar to dissolve in the heat. Stir and cook for a minute or two, tasting to see if it needs more sugar or vinegar. Turn off the heat, add the artichokes and rip the basil into the pan. Stir the mixture gently so that the artichokes remain in nice distinct pieces. Leave to sit for at least two hours, or better still several, turning once or twice. Enjoy!









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