Artichokes: the Roman warrior with a tender heart

The artichoke is a complex vegetable. Sung and told by many, with the words of Pablo Neruda in his Ode al carciofo we find a precise description: The tender-hearted artichoke was dressed as a warrior”.

The artichoke is a vegetable with a unique shape, extremely generous, which goes with many second courses and that can be cooked in many ways: alla romana, alla giudia, boiled, in salads, in lasagna, in risotto. It is often used as a side dish for dishes such as saltimbocca alla romana or meatballs or as a real appetizer.

The vegetable with a tender heart is in the heart of many Italians, especially Romans, who make this dish a unique and unmistakable taste. Let’s see the story and the recipe together.

Artichokes: a bit of history

According to a mythological fable, Cynara, a beautiful nymph with ash-blond hair, after resisting Zeus, the father of the gods, was transformed into an artichoke. Already in the times of the Egyptians it was used in the kitchen; Theophrastus then inserts this vegetable in the “History of plants” with the name “cardui pineae”. Columella confirms that the wild artichoke was used both for food and medicine. In the “De re coquinaria” by Apicius, the greatest chef of ancient Rome, he talked about cynara hearts (the Roman name of artichokes) boiled in water or wine.

At the beginning of the sixteenth century Ariosto, the writer of the Orlando furioso, did not speak about the artichokes in a good way: he considered them bitter and harsh. But it was soon made to appear in kitchen treatises where it was explained how to chop it. It is said that Caterina de ‘Medici became an esteem. It was not by chance that it was often used as a dish in many Tuscan cuisines: the wife of Henry II of France, Maria de ‘Medici, exported artichokes to France, among other things.

Artichokes: aphrodisiac or not?

He also began to have an aphrodisiac reputation, most likely deriving from his phallic appearance. Mattioli wrote in his “Discourses”: “the pulp of artichokes cooked in meat broth is eaten with pepper at the end of the tables and with galanga to increase the venereal appetites”.

Montaigne speaks about the artichoke in 1581 during his Grand Tour and so, a few years later, the great nineteenth-century gastronomist Grimod de La Reyniere who speaks of it as a versatile, healthy and nutritious food, and slightly aphrodisiac.

What distinguishes the different types of artichoke are the thorns and the color (green tending to gray or violet). Among the thorny varieties are the greens of Liguria and the violets of Venice; among the non-thorny we find the so-called Roman artichoke, also known as the mammola.

Artichokes: romana or giudia?

Both recipes use the round Roman artichokes we just mentioned in the previous paragraph. The fundamental difference is related to the way to cook them: the artichokes alla giudia are fried and probably the recipe was born in the Jewish Ghetto of Rome around the 16th century; the Roman artichokes instead have a sweet and slow cooking that makes these vegetables soft and embellished with mint.

Below is our recipe for Roman artichokes (Carciofi alla romana).

Roman artichockes: the recipe

Ingredients

4 Roman artichokes

A bunch of mint

A clove of garlic

Fine salt

Black pepper

100 ml olive oil

250 g water

1 lemon 

 

Preparing time 20 min

Cooking time 30 min

Serves 4

Directions

First of all, to prepare the Roman artichokes, start cutting the lemon in half. 

Then fill a rather large bowl with water and squeeze the half lemon inside rubbing the remaining part on your hands, in order to avoid that they could become black during the cleaning of the artichokes. Take your artichokes and start removing the outer leaves by tearing them off with your hands. Then cut the final part of the stem and the tip of your artichoke. With the hands spread the artichoke and using a small knife, or a digger, engrave also the central part so as to eliminate the internal beard.

Also peel the stem and round off the final part using a sharp knife. Place the artichoke inside the acidulous water and continue like this for the others. Cover with absorbent paper to keep the artichokes immersed in water, set aside and in the meantime take care of the filling. Take the mint, roll the leaves and cut them with a knife without crushing them too much. Pass the garlic, peel it, slice it first and then chop it too. Add it to the mint, add a pinch of salt, black pepper and mix together. Drain the artichokes and beat them lightly to remove the excess water, then use the mix just prepared to stuff them. 

Massage them with salt and pepper arranged on the cutting board and as they are ready transfer them upside down to a pan, keeping them rather close together. 

Then pour both the oil and the water, they must be covered up to the beginning of the stem. Cover with a lid and cook for about 30 minutes on a low heat.

At this point they will be tender and you can serve your still hot Roman artichokes. Don’t forget to accompany the dish with good bread to make the scarpetta, Italian way to say to mop up the sauce from a plate of food with a piece of bread.

Enjoy your Roman artichokes!

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