All things carciofi rank among my favorite foods. The subtle yet powerful, nearly indescribable flavor of the artichoke is unmatched. Another mild yet distinctive vegetable which comes to mind is celery. The challenge of the artichoke, however, contributes both to its allure and the aversion to dealing with it. Nothing beats a freshly prepared artichoke, even though I doubt it ranks among one of the healthiest veggies. It must lose most of its nutritious value during the long, slow cooking process. But the essence is so remarkable that it's a non-issue.
The first time I tried carciofi alla romana was at a restaurant near Campo dei Fiori with my Italian aunt-equivalent Erina. It was also my first day in Rome, and I wound up puking up the meal which also included house red wine and a very pungent papardelle con funghi porcini. This incident was not a result of food poisoning, just adjusting to an entirely new place and perhaps some unfamiliar microbes.
I had no idea what to make of what appeared to be naked artichokes, since I was primarily anticipating carciofi alla giudia. In my family we ate artichokes that were steamed in the pressure cooker (remember those? What else were they used for other than for cooking artichokes?), and we tore the leaves and dragged them through melted butter with salt and herbs. I also consumed many jars of hearts preserved in oil and gross pucker-inducing vinegar. So the idea of stripping artichokes down to a smooth core was pretty mind-blowing, something I hadn't been exposed to at local Italian restaurants. Erina explained that they're very difficult to prepare. In my limited experience, restaurants here don't bother making these often because it must be too time-consuming and exacting.
T'was a pity to keep passing by these spiny flowery masses that contain such goodness within. Especially in California, where at our farmer's markets we can find unwieldy artichoke beasts almost like those sold in outdoor Italian fresh food bazaars.
Time to roll up my sleeves, and grab the paring knife and peeler! My first attempt at Marcella's carciofi alla romana was only mildly successful despite the hour I spent stripping two meager 'chokes. I initially suspected that I was too aggressive with discarding the green and inedible parts, but in fact I was too shy. The next go-around I decided to braise them with leeks.
I began with two gorgeous globes:
got to here:
and wound up with this.
It don't look pretty, but it sure was tasty! The dish required roughly the same time as the first try and I expended as much effort, just with a tad less aggravation because I knew what to expect. And the braised leeks and cubed artichokes turned out to be somewhat forgiving compared to alla romana method.
There was one minor disappointment. As we've found with a few Marcella recipes, sometimes you stumble upon an unclear direction. When she says slice lengthwise in four pieces doesn't Marcella mean quarter them, or should you cut into big round pieces? I opted for the first and it turned out just fine.
During peak season in springtime I'll be especially grateful for having overcome the fresh artichoke hump.