Have you ever wondered about the first ones to eat something new that they hadn’t encountered before? IS it edible? What PART is edible? Should it be eaten RAW or COOKED? What part do you DISCARD? What part is most DELICIOUS? How is it best PREPARED? What should it be eaten WITH?
Traveling to and cooking in a foreign country is much like being a “primitive man” asking all those questions about newly encountered food items. But at least when you walk into a grocery store or step up to a market stall, someone has done the preselection for you and you’re not out in the woods trying to discern edibility. If it’s in the store, SOME part of it must be edible.
For the last couple of months I’ve been seeing these very small, young, almost-flower-like artichoke heads in the street markets and grocery stores. Very beautiful, but what do they DO with them?! I had no idea, and passed them up, regretfully. I had eaten marinated artichokes scooped out of little jars. Had steamed softball-sized heads and eaten them, leaf-by-leaf dipping the ends in butter. And I’ve eaten that sinfully fat-laden, hot dip with artichoke hearts, cheese, mayo and who knows what else. But I’d never done much else with them or seen them offered other ways. Yes, I’m sure the recipes and methods are out there, but the ones I just mentioned seem to be the across-the-board standards for eating artichokes.
On the evening of New Year’s Day, I was out walking around the Duomo and decided to have dinner out. I picked one of the few restaurants that were open, perused the menu and decided I HAD to have “Insalata di Carciofi Crudi” – Salad of Raw Artichokes! I ordered a “Pizza di Quatro Formaggi” – a four cheese pizza – to go with the salad, but that was secondary in my mind.
What arrived at my table was a bowl with paper thin shavings of very young, tender artichokes, including about an inch of the stem. They had been drizzled with a “fruttato” – “fruity” – extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice, sprinkled with salt and freshly ground pepper and tossed together with some thinly sliced grana cheese. Wow! Delicious! Simple, fresh in the middle of winter and quite a surprise. NOW I knew what could be done with those flowery artichokes.
Tonight, at the grocery store, I didn’t pass them up. They sold some untrimmed with thorny tips and 8 inches of stem, and they sold trimmed, packaged groups of 4. I considered the prices and how much would be thrown away from either and bought those that had been trimmed.
Usually, I would “just wing it” and approximate what I had tasted on New Year’s Day, but I decided to look online to see if there were any guidelines to follow. In doing so I found a handy Italian cooking website: Buonissimo.org. (Sorry. It’s all in Italian.) The recipe I found was what I had surmised and described above.
I removed the outer, half dozen tougher leaves and trimmed both ends to freshen them up. Then I cut the flower heads in half.
Since I don’t have a mandolin slicer here, I used my best Shun Tomato Knife, sharp and serrated, and sliced the artichokes as thinly as I could. (I left the furry inner parts, figuring they hadn’t gotten prickly.) I put it all in a bowl with the grana padano cheese (a nutty, almost sweet, hard cheese similar to parmesan), abundant lemon juice and extra virgin olive oil. Shook a little sea salt and grated some fresh pepper then gave it a gentle tossing.
With my heaped serving of “Insalata di Carciofi Crudi”, I ate Norwegian, farm-raised salmon seasoned with Seattle’s Tom Douglas’ sweet/peppery Salmon Rub. The salad will become one of my new favorites. (If nothing else, it’s certainly good for the roughage!) But are the artichokian flowers available in the States?!