In her brilliant book, Italian Food, Elizabeth David has a recipe for Carciofi alla Veneziana that immediately captured my attention. I was flipping through the vegetable section one day – as I often do, looking for nothing in particular but, rather, for some kind of cooking inspiration – and suddenly stopped at the sight of the word Venetian, followed by the word artichokes. I was hooked.
As a home cook, artichokes have for long been my pet peeve. But, being such a central ingredient in Venetian cuisine, I couldn’t avoid them forever. To tell you the truth, artichokes intimidated me because I wasn’t too familiar with them. Mum never made them, and for long, I had no idea what to look for when purchasing them, how to clean and cook them properly. They were a mystery.
Then, all of a sudden, the whole world of artichokes opened up to me. I moved to London and began to work for a fruit and vegetable company. I started to have access to more knowledge, more information, more variety. I began by learning how to clean artichokes from a friend chef. Basics acquired, I slowly went into experimenting with different recipes. I started with a simple artichoke salad: just thinly sliced spiky Sardinian artichokes, good olive oil, lemon, and flaky salt. I then moved to cooked preparations: spring vignarola with peas and broad beans; frittata, risotto. And, finally, these braised artichokes.
Another of my favourite food writers, Jane Grigson, perhaps like David, made her first acquaintance with artichokes at in Venice and dedicates a vast and fascinating chapter to them in her ever-inspiring Vegetable Book. In one particularly poignant passage, she says:
“The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilized living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. […] It had no place in the troll’s world of instant gratification. It makes no appeal to the meat-and-two-veg mentality.“
Never wiser words were written on the matter.
David’s recipe for Carciofi alla Veneziana turned out to be very much deserving of Grigson’s definition. The dish – compelling and yet uncomplicated – was nothing short of sheer joy. In its simplicity, it infuses the reader/cook with a sense of empowerment that feels liberating.
The original recipe calls for a mixture of olive oil, white wine and water in which to braise the artichokes. I, after a few experiments, have found that a splash of white vermouth adds a pleasant sweet note. As the cooking liquid reduces, the sugars in the vermouth caramelise and give way to a deliciously sticky sauce.
I have been serving these artichokes with fresh cheese on many occasions, but also with some cannellini beans drenched in oil. I can see them working very well with some lamb, too, perhaps with a mint sauce on the side.
Carciofi alla Veneziana
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Start by cleaning the artichokes. Using a small serrated knife, halve the lemon and squeeze some juice on the blade. Remove the outer leaves from the artichokes until you find those which look pale green or light purple. Trim the stalk 3 cm from the base and peel it to reveal the white part, plus any remaining bit of the outer leaves still attached to the base. Finally, trim the ends at about 1.5 cm from the top.
Cut the artichokes in half to remove the choke, then cut into quarters. If you are working with particularly small violet artichokes, you might want to leave them cut in half. At every passage, rub the cut parts of the artichokes with lemon to prevent discolouration.
Heat the oil in a large skillet, and once hot, add the artichoke quarters. Fry for two minutes over medium heat, stirring often. Pour in the vermouth and allow it to evaporate, then add the water, reduce the heat and cover.
Allow the artichokes to braise for about 20 minutes, or until tender. At this point, remove the lid, turn up the heat and let the liquids reduce to a gravy. Season with a generous pinch of salt and a couple of turns of the pepper grinder. Serve with the roughly torn mint leaves.Print recipe