Artichokes

 

 

 

 

 

(Since posting this item, I have had a fabulous salad of artichokes, new season’s broad beans and shaved Asiago cheese at Sosta Cucina and shot this image of super fresh produce just delivered to them (also on the menu at the moment – baby lamb with stuffed artichokes! Worth a comment and new pic!)

 

I just had an email from an old friend, in fact one of my very first cooking school students, who told me she was still enthusiastically preparing artichokes the way I taught her 20 years ago.

I was so thrilled to hear from her that I decided to devote this post to this prickly and intimidating member of the thistle family.
I absolutely adore this vegetable and prepare it in many different ways – in a  pie, in lasagne,  risotto, with pasta, braised or preserved with in oil.  I put sliced artichokes in frittate and in lamb or chicken tajines, either alone or with tender green peas or new season’s broad beans.  They are simply delicious no matter how you prepare them.
It is thought that the artichoke (and its close relative the cardoon) originated in North Africa where it still grows wild. The chokes of the wild artichoke thistle are dried and used as vegetable rennet to curdle milk –  making one of the great breakfast treats in Morocco – “raib” – a type of set junket flavoured with orange blossom water and ever so slightly sweetened.
On my tour to Morocco last November, I requested a tajine of lamb with wild artichoke hearts and broadbeans. Lalla Fatima, the wonderful cook who welcomes my groups into her home, prepared  it for us showing me the cuts on her hands (just in case I hadn’t quite appreciated the trouble she had gone to). The hearts were half the size of a broad bean and so sweet and succulent – a rare treat!
tajine

Italians and particularly Romans are known for their artichoke dishes,  among the best known of which are Carciofi alla Romana (braised artichokes) and  Carciofi alla Giudea – flattened and deep fried whole artichokes of the large, round Mammola variety native to the Lazio region of Italy (a very old recipe particular to Rome’s ancient Jewish community and still available in the ghetto).

One of my favourite artichoke recipes is the following pie, adapted from a recipe by Marcella Hazan.
To prepare artichokes for cooking, follow these step by step instructions. (Sorry the explanation is in Italian but the video is self explanatory).

Artichoke Pie

Dough
180g plain flour            110g unsalted butter
150g ricotta cheese            1/2 tsp salt

In a food processor, sift the flour and then add the butter and process until mixture resembles coarse crumbs.  Add the ricotta and salt and process until a soft dough is formed.

Filling
4 artichokes                              Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 tbsp unsalted butter            1 small onion, chopped
salt                                              freshly ground black pepper
200g ricotta cheese                1 cup grated parmesan
2 eggs                                         1 tablespoon fresh marjoram, chopped
3 tbsp chopped flat leaf parsley

Preheat the oven to 190°C.
Clean the artichokes and slice thinly, placing in a bowl of water acidulated with the lemon juice  and a large pinch of flour to prevent them from blackening.
Place the butter and onion in a pan and saute gently until the onion is soft and pale gold.

Rinse and drain the artichoke pieces and add them to the pan tossing to coat with the butter.  Add salt, pepper, half the chopped parsley and 1/2 cup water.

Cover the pan and cook until the artichokes are tender (about 10 minutes).  Boil away any liquid  remaining in the pan and set aside to cool.  Mix in the ricotta, parmesan, remaining parsley, marjoram and the beaten eggs.  Check for seasoning.

Divide the dough into two pieces, one twice the size of the other.

Roll out the larger piece of dough and line a 20cm spring form cake tin with it making sure it overlaps the sides. (No need to grease the tin)
Place the prepared filling into the tin and then roll out the second piece of dough placing it over of the filling.

Seal the two layers of dough together, trimming off the excess and pinching to form a crimped edge.

Make a steam hole in the centre of the top crust and decorate with leaves cut from the dough trimmings (I usually form some dough into a rose as well). Bake for about 45 minutes or until golden brown.  Remove from the tin and set aside to cool.  Serve lukewarm or at room temperature.

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Moroccan Sugar Cones

In Morocco,  sugar is traditionally sold in 2kg cones.  I often see cart loads of blue and white wrapped cones being distributed from a depot in the Mellah area of Marrakech.  In rural markets, people cannot always afford the whole cone and so pieces are broken off and sold by weight.  In the stunning Nejjarine woodworking museum in Fes, one can see antique wooden sugar moulds and beautifully decorated wooden  hammers used for breaking the sugar into pieces.
On a recent visit to a Berber home in the High Atlas mountains just outside Marrakech, I asked our hostess what she used to break down her sugar cones.  She produced a section of flat iron and told me she had been using it for over 20 years. It certainly works!
As an essential ingredient in Morocco’s famous mint tea, sugar is often presented in a decorative silver box forming part of the classic tea service – brazier, teapot, tray, container for green tea, container for sugar, container for mint and tea glasses… more about that in a coming post!

Orange Blossoms, Mint Tea and “White Coffee”

Spring has suddenly begun making itself felt strongly in Melbourne.  Our famous elms are sporting the pale green seed pods that are so pretty on the trees and such a nuisance once they start to fly about, sticking to car duco and clogging up gutters. Wisteria is bursting into bloom and ephemeral cherry, apple and prunus blossoms scent the air, so poignantly beautiful for their all-too-brief season.
Early spring in Morocco has baskets full of Bitter Orange blossoms in the markets and copper stills for hire prompting industrious women, particularly in Fes, to prepare their annual supply of orange blossom water. As the Bitter or Seville Orange (Citrus aurantium subsp. amara) is found in most Moroccan gardens and is a common street tree, planted  for its hardiness, evergreen beauty and heady perfume, there is a ready supply of blossoms to pick during the season.

Moroccan women will often add a few orange blossoms to the pot when making mint tea. Out of season, a few drops of orange blossom water can be substituted.

For those who eschew caffeine late in the afternoon and evening, a scant teaspoon of orange blossom water  in a glass of hot water makes for a delicious and digestive after-dinner drink and is known in Lebanon as “qahwa baida” or “white coffee” –  plain or sweetened to taste with a little sugar, it will ensure a restorative night’s sleep as well!

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