Braised Whole Artichokes (Carciofi alla Romana)
This dish of braised artichokes—the standard-bearer of traditional Roman vegetables—is remarkable for three things: the mystique of the carciofo romanesco (large Roman globe artichoke), the special way the artichoke is cut and the distinctive mintlike mentuccia (Roman dialect for nepitella, or calamint in English). Unfortunately, not everyone has access to real Roman artichokes or mentuccia. Just buy the most tender artichokes available and remove anything that isn’t edible. A carciofo alla romana should have an almost buttery texture. The more olive oil you use, the better the dish will be.
- 1/2 lemon
- 4 young, tender artichokes
- 3 Tbs. fresh nepitella, peppermint, pennyroyal or flat-leaf parsley leaves, or a combination
- 1 garlic clove (optional)
- 4 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil, or as needed
- 1/4 tsp. salt
- About 1/2 cup dry white wine
Fill a bowl with water and squeeze the juice of the lemon into it. Working with 1 artichoke at a time, trim off the base of the stem, leaving at least 2 inches attached, then peel away the stem’s dark, stringy outer layer. Remove all the tough outer leaves until you reach the pale, tender inner leaves. Hold the artichoke in one hand and a small, sharp knife in the other. Rest the artichoke against the knife blade without pressing and turn the artichoke against the blade. Then cut about 1/2 inch off the top. (The process may seem wasteful, but what remains is the most tender, edible part.) As you finish trimming each artichoke, drop it into the lemon water.
On a cutting board, using a mezzaluna (a two-handled curved chopping knife), finely chop together the herb(s) and garlic. (Alternatively, use a chef’s knife or a small food processor.) Transfer to a small bowl, add 2 Tbs. of the olive oil and the salt and mix well.
If the artichokes are tender, spread the leaves apart with your fingers to expose the center and pull out a bit of the choke to create a small cavity. If they are not tender, the easiest way to expose the center is to push an apple corer deep into the middle of the artichoke to cut out a plug of center leaves and some of the choke. Alternatively, you can pry out the leaves and choke with a spoon.
Using a small spoon, put about 2 spoonfuls of the herb mixture into each artichoke and reserve the rest. Place the artichokes, stem up, in a heavy pot large enough to hold them snugly in a single layer and tall enough to accommodate the stems. Sprinkle the remaining herb mixture over the artichokes, then drizzle them with the remaining 2 Tbs. olive oil, or a little more. Place over medium heat and brown lightly on the bottom, about 5 minutes. Pour in the wine to a depth of not more than 1/2 inch.
Cover the pot and place over medium heat, preferably with a flame diffuser. When the liquid boils, reduce the heat to low. Put a folded brown-paper bag or a folded kitchen towel over the top of the pot, making sure to keep its edges away from the burner, and cover with the pot lid. This will draw off moisture so the artichokes will not taste boiled. Finally, place a weight, such as a stone or a meat tenderizer, on the lid to keep it as tight-fitting as possible. Cook the artichokes until they are quite tender. This will take up to 40 minutes, depending on how young and tender they are. Check the level of the wine 2 or 3 times while they cook and add a little more if the pot is dry.
When the artichokes are tender, uncover and let any remaining liquid evaporate. Let the artichokes continue cooking for a couple of minutes in the oil that remains in the pan. Transfer the artichokes to a serving plate and pour any oil remaining in the pot over the top. Serve warm or at room temperature. Serves 4.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Foods of the World Series, Rome, by Maureen B. Fant (Oxmoor House, 2005).