Featured ingredient: Artichokes in April

Early spring in Italy means artichokes! In the Mediterranean there are dozens of varieties, some highly prized as Slow Food presidia or regulated by DOP, DOCG or IGP status. They’re high in fibre, low-cal, rich in mineral salts… and delicious.

At a local Florentine supermarket you’re liable to find the round, red Rinaldo and the slightly more purple and elongated Violetto. Head to a market in Rome and you’ll find an abundance of the huge, round Romanesco, while in Liguria you’ll want to watch your fingers when reaching for the Carciofo di Perinaldo with its spiny yellow tips (ditto with the Spinello of Sicily and the Spinoso of Sardgna).

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This is a Roman artichoke – photo Alexandra Korey

In the States, a single variety has dominated the market since the 1920s: the big, round California green globe, although some growers have been working on developing domestic cultivars based on the ones we know in Italy.

Each variety of artichoke is best suited to certain recipes and tends to be highly regional. The Romanesca is used by Rome’s Jewish restaurants to make delicious fried Carciofi alla Giudea. In Sicily, the hearts of the Carciofo alla Villanella are stuffed with sardines and parseley.

Tuscan artichokes

Tuscan artichokes

In Tuscany, when the Violetto is in season, cooks find ways to use it throughout the whole meal. As an appetizer, serve them marinated in lemon juice for delicious salad topped with some pecorino cheese. As a primo, artichoke risotto can’t be beat. Heading into the secondo, you can make a frittata or torta salata with them. Carciofi alla Toscana is a contorno, a side dish, constituting artichoke hearts made simply in the oven or fried, depending on how healthy the chef wants to be.

Artichokes with Tuna spread

Artichokes with Tuna spread

 

Mi Garba uses Tuscan artichokes in two dishes. “Artichokes with Tuna” is an any-time appetizer: good quality canned tuna complements the astringent character of artichokes in a classic combination seasoned with onions, capers, and garlic. It can be served lightly heated on toast, or mixed with rice to make a salad. Then there’s the classic “Risotto with Artichokes”, which combines the violet vegetable with tender Arborio rice, cooked with the constant addition of hot broth to preserve the rice’s natural starch that is released, slowly thickening the cooking liquid.

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