Sunday, 13 May 2007

Artichokes in Palermo

When I was 18 I went on a college exchange trip to Palermo. I had been paired with a Sicilian girl who was very different from myself. I was a long haired, rainbow clothed, shoeless hippy and she was a very prim little lady, who was learning to become a model and went to deportment classes. As soon as we met each other we realised we had little in common so there was a kind of unspoken agreement that we would just let each other alone. When I wasn't participating in college activities, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with her mother who, much to my delight, was very keen to teach me about Sicilian food. The rest of my free time I spent on the beach with my friends or flirting with Italian boys!

Much to the despair of the Sicilian mother I was a strict vegetarian (my morals have since given way to my desires). She was not particularly bothered that I did not eat meat, more that I would not try the fantastic seafood Sicily was so famous for. Luckily for me, my sister got married in Sicily last year, not far from Palermo and I got to taste the wonderful seafood at last. However, at 18 I was too puritanical for these indulgences and consequently my Sicilian hostess (we shall call her mama) decided to treat me to my favourite food cooked in as many ways as she new how.

What I loved most in the world were artichokes and as it was February it was Sicilian artichoke season. They were everywhere, men stood on street corners with carts full of them, picking them up in bundles by their long stems and selling them to passers-by. They were different from any artichokes that I had eaten before in that they were young and quite small and had therefore not yet developed the hard outer leaves or the inedible choke. Except for a very few of the outer leaves the whole thing could be eaten. Mama worked hard to make fantastic meals for me, in fact I have never seen someone spend so much time in the kitchen. She made artichoke and pea pasta, artichoke frittata, braised artichokes with lemon, stuffed artichokes with cheese, artichoke salad and we even ordered artichoke pizza from a local restaurant.

The best meal I had there involved the whole family. Mama lived on the middle floor of a gorgeous apartment block, mama's sister lived in the upstairs flat and their mother lived on the ground floor with a wonderful garden full of orange and lemon trees and a massive barbeque. We all gathered in the grandmother's flat around a huge table with all the cousins, uncles, aunts, brothers, sisters and parents. The table was spread with cheeses, cold meats, salads, fruit and homemade wine. The women stood at the stove and cooked the pasta, they brought it to the table and we ate. After this they returned to the stove and cooked the next course, we ate again and again they returned to the stove. This went on for hours (about 6 hours in total!) until we were all completely stuffed and quite drunk on grandfather's wine! For me, the highlight of the meal were of course the artichokes. They had been flattened with a large stone, drizzled with plenty of good olive oil and cooked over the barbeque till the outsides had blackened. The outer leaves were then peeled off and the soft insides were eaten with nothing more than a squeeze of lemon.

I have rarely found the young tender artichokes without a choke in this country but I happened to chance upon one last week and its sweet taste took me back to my time in Sicily.

I will give the recipes that Mama taught me to the best of my memory, although they may not be exactly verbatim as it is a long time since I was that 18 year old hippy!

First, how to prepare the baby artichokes:

Use artichokes that are somewhere between the size of an egg and the size of a small lemon if possible.

* Remove the outer leaves from the artichoke, with baby artichokes this will be just the first visable layer.
* Cut off the pointed top of each artichoke
* Cut off most of the stem, I leave about4cm in tact
* Cut the artichokes in half lengthways, through the heart
They are now ready to cook
n.b. If you can only get older larger artichokes you will need to remove more outer leaves unti l you reach the soft silky inner ones and you will also need to pull out the inedible choke that they do not have if they are young.

Artichoke Frittata serves 4

6 baby artichokes prepared as above
Olive oil
1 clove garlic, sliced
6 eggs, lightly beaten with a fork
salt and pepper

*Boil or steam the artichokes until they are quite tender
* Warm some olive oil in a nonstick frying pan, add the garlic and the artichokes and saute till the garlic is soft and the artichokes soft
* Set the artichokes aside
* Wipe the frying pan clean and then heat till medium hot and add a little oil
* Add half the beaten eggs and turn the heat to very low
* Do not stir the eggs at all and cook slowly till they start to set on top
* Carefully slide the frittata out onto a plate
* Cook the other half of the eggs in the same way until they start to set on top
* Spoon the artichokes onto the egg in the pan then season with salt and pepper
* Now carefully invert the other half of the frittata on top of the artichokes, uncooked side down, so that you have an egg and artichoke sandwich

- this is fairly tricky so use oven gloves and take it slowly

- I find the best way to do it is to put a plate on top of the frittata so you have one on the top and one on the bottom, then tip them over so the uncooked side is on the bottom then carefully slide the frittata back into the frying pan

* Now continue to cook on a very low heat till the frittata is cooked through.
* Serve with a salad or in Italian style after the pasta and before the salad, cheese then fruit

Artichoke and Pea Pasta serves 4
8 baby artichokes, prepared as above but cut into quaters
2 cloves garlic, crushed
300g frozen petit pois or other frozen peas (in season you can use 400g fresh peas)
1 tin plum tomatoes, crushed or chopped
1 heaped tablespoon tomato puree
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil + more for sauteing
1/2 teaspoon sugar
Salt and pepper
150ml double cream
400g pasta, rigatoni, penne or other shape with little hollows to catch the peas and sauce

* Warm some olive oil in a saute pan, add the prepared artichokes and the garlic and mix to coat
* Season to taste with salt and pepper, add 200ml water, cover and simmer till tender
* Meanwhile, make the tomato sauce: Put the tinned tomatoes, tomato puree, 100ml water, sugar, tablespoon of butter or olive oil and salt and pepper in a saucepan
*Simmer this over a medium heat for 10 - 15 minutes, stirring from time to time, till thickened
* When the tomato sauce and artichokes are both cooked mix them together, add the cream and place over a very low heat while you cook the pasta
* Add the peas to the sauce when the pasta is 5 minutes from being ready
* Drain the pasta well and mix with the sauce before serving

More recipes to follow...


Anna said...

Hi Helen--I've just noticed that you link to my food blog, and I wanted to thank you! Have been browsing your blog, and it's just beautiful. We'll definitely be reciprocating the link.
PS Thanks to you I am now seriously craving artichokes!

Helen said...

Thanks Anna! You are the first person to link to me so I am very excited!

SystemAbuser said...

This is a great blog Helen, I really think your pictures are lovely and the food sounds wonderful!

SystemAbuser said...

hey lady, can you send me or blog your egg curry receipe, puurrrlease!!