I’ve come full circle with artichokes. I adored them as a kid, so many memories of boiling them whole, scraping them against teeth, piles of mayonnaise to dip in, at my grandparents house. They always used Saffola mayonnaise, a particular taste, completely different from the slightly sweet Hellmans mayonnaise my parents used. The little bitter edge always made me feel a bit grown up. The piles of leftover leaves, casualties, mounded into the compost after. The pleasantly slow process, dipping leaf after leaf, foreshadowing the lovely lazy days of summer ahead. I always proudly gave away my artichoke heart to my dad, which I gasp at now, years of those tender hearts lost! I don’t know why but I thought the heart too mushy. Now of course it is my favorite. Its amazing how our food preferences can change so drastically over the course of a lifetime. Sometimes my mom baked and stuffed them and sometimes we bought store bought marinated ones which got thrown into pasta salads in the height of juicy summer.
After I moved out of the house, I never bought artichokes for years and years. I always thought them fussy and not particularly worth the effort. But Carmela loved artichokes and would beg for them, so I bought them very occasionally, specifically for her. Then, last year, I saw the little baby artichokes at the market, beautiful and small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, tinged a bit purple. Carciofini. How darling they looked sitting next to the giant globe artichokes. I impulsively brought them home and discovered they had no choke to speak of and with a bit of trimming, the whole thing was edible. What a revelation! I ate them weekly until they were no more, gone until next year, leaving me pining away. Such are the pleasures of seasonal eating.
This year, I’ve eaten all types of artichokes many ways- alla romana, with the elegant stems sloping upwards and braised into melting tenderness, in risottos, vignarola, and of course the good old steamed or boiled whole, leaved dipped lovingly one by one into vinaigrette or mayonnaise. In addition, greedily hoping to extend the season a bit longer, I set aside a Saturday afternoon and decided to make carciofi sott’olio. In which the trimmed artichokes are boiled in an acidulated white wine, vinegar, and water mix before being left to dry out for 24 hours, then tightly packed in a meticulously clean glass jar and drowned in olive oil. Sott’olio is applied to many vegetables, eggplant, peppers, zucchini and such, often served as part of an appetizer spread. I plan to eat mine just so out of the jar, perhaps with a slice of good bread to mop up some of the oil. I’m sure some of them will be sliced and make their way into pasta salads, bean salads (with sliced raw sweet onion, cannellini beans, parsley etc) too. They also look beautiful on the pantry shelf, satisfying to see there, if like me, you feel comforted by shelves lined with things you made with your own hands.
Of course, if you cannot find baby artichokes (which actually are simply the '“volunteer” offshoots lower down on the plant stem), regular big artichokes will do, trimmed well, choke removed, and quartered. When choosing artichokes, be sure to choose fresh looking specimens- if you bend down a leaf it should snap really and brightly, not limply. The leaves should be nice and tight, and the stem should look relatively fresh- without a black stump where it’s been cut.
Trimming artichokes can be very intimidating for a beginner, I know I avoided them for years just because of that. Courage! I promise its actually not very difficult, just time consuming, once you get the hang of it, and if you’re armed with a good sharp paring knife. I quite enjoy it to be honest, a little vegetable meditation in action paying dutiful attention to the leaves, the feeling, the sounds of the leaves snapping. Perhaps pour a glass of wine, dance around the kitchen, enlist a friend, and put some good music on before you begin. It’s just the thing for a Saturday or Sunday. I do hope you enjoy making them if you take the plunge, I promise it will be worth it. xx
carciofi sott’olio (artichokes preserved under oil)
a lemon, sliced in quarters
3.25 lb / 1.5 kg baby artichokes
2.25 cups / 500 ml white wine
2.25 cups / 500 ml white wine vinegar
a bay leaf
whole black peppercorns
olive oil, enough to fill the jar
a very clean glass jar with a lid
Begin by trimming the artichokes, rubbing the cut surfaces with lemon as you go. Snap off the tough outer leaves until you see the ones with a yellow base. Cut off the top third of the leaves which are dark green, tough and inedible and trim the stem. For a more detailed primer, check out Heidi Swanson’s excellent post on trimming artichokes.
Bring the white wine, vinegar, and 1 cup / 200 ml water to a boil with the bay leaf and a generous three finger pinch of salt. Add half the the artichokes, we don’t want to crowd them, and when the liquid comes back to the boil, stir them around and then set a timer for 3 minutes. Fish them out with a strainer and do the second batch. Leave them to sit in a colander in your (clean) sink until they’ve cooled enough to handle. Meanwhile, prepare a clean baking sheet or dish with a clean kitchen towel. Then, one at a time, take an artichoke, holding it upside down, and squeeze gently over the sink to get rid of any excess liquid. Place it right side up on the lined sheet. Repeat. Let the artichokes sit at room temp for 24 hours so that any remaining water can dry off them.
Pack them firmly into your very clean glass jar, alternating layers with a few black peppercorns (or dried chiles, cloves, or other dried spices if you wish). Pour in the olive oil, enough to completely submerge all the artichokes generously- you don’t want any exposure to air. Screw on the lid and set in a cool dark cupboard for at least 10 days- two weeks before eating, and up to 3-4 months.