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In her very first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book, published in 1973, Marcella Hazan writes:
”I cannot imagine Italy without its vegetable stalls, filling ancient squares and animating dusty side streets with mounds of fabulous forms in purple, green, red, gold, and orange. In a land heavy with man’s monuments, these are the soil’s own masterworks.”
Her final—and posthumously-released—book, Ingredienti, will come out this July and is devoted to these very masterworks. It’s full of her musings and tips about navigating the market, lovingly culled and translated from hand-written notes by her husband, Victor. But this book doesn’t have recipes. Instead, it will serve as your Marcella stand-in as you peruse the market.
Marcella “could spot something ripe, fresh, and desirable from across several vendors. If there was nothing appealing on a produce stall, she would know it instantly and pass quickly by,” Victor explained over email.
We can all aspire to be more like Marcella was. In the meantime, we can feel just a little bit closer: Read the excerpt, below, from her forthcoming book on the vegetable that bewilders and entices at the market right now: artichokes. It’s the single longest section in the vegetables chapter in her first book, and there’s an illustration of one on the cover of Ingredienti—it's love for the artichoke, come full-circle.
In Marcella’s words, here’s what you need to know about the vegetable—and scroll down to the end for a recipe for Roman-Style artichokes from Marcella’s first book, The Classic Italian Cook Book.
Victor’s note: In the last week of her life, Marcella prepped an entire box of baby artichokes. They are in the refrigerator in a glass jar where they are to remain.
I have never boiled an artichoke. There are cooks, I understand, who have never made artichokes any other way. What a pity. Artichokes possess more fascinating ways to please than almost any other vegetable. Just on their own, they can be sautéed, braised, fried, or grilled; they can be delicious sliced very thin and eaten raw with lemon juice and olive oil. They can be used in a risotto, a frittata, a soup, terrific lasagna, a rustic torta, a gratin, a stew. Cooking them is not at all complicated. Prepping them, however, is indisputably an exercise in patience, particularly so with the small ones.
There are two basic varieties of artichokes grown for the American market. One of these, the globe, is round in shape as its name suggests. The leaves, which have a small indentation at their tip, curl tightly inward. They are almost always available, but their ideal season is from very late winter to early summer. The globe resembles the Italian artichoke known as mammola in Rome, where it is often served alla giudia, flattened and fried to a crisp, its leaves curling in imitation of a chrysanthemum. The other variety is smaller than the globe. Its leaves, which are often purplish, lean slightly outward with a thorn at their tip. Their flavor is more intensely artichokey than that of the mild-mannered globe. Small artichokes, whose growers describe them as babies, have made a welcome entry into the market. They come from the same plant as the larger ones, but they are clipped from a lower section. They don’t have a fuzzy choke at their heart, and they have a fine taste, but they require at least as much patience to prep thoroughly as the larger ones.
When you are about to buy artichokes, look them over carefully to be sure that they are fresh and worth the effort you’ll be putting into preparing them. Bend back a leaf, which should snap, not fold over limply. Check the bottom end of the stem where it has been cut. It should still be green and possibly dewy, at least in part. If it is dark or even black and lifeless, it was cut from the plant too long ago. Keep fresh artichokes for up to a week in the refrigerator, stowed in a large open plastic bag. Baby artichokes are usually sold in a plastic box in which you can refrigerate them for about a week. When you are ready to prep them, set the following equipment out on your counter: a half lemon, a bowl of water into which you’ve squeezed the other half of the lemon, a sharp chef ’s knife, a paring knife or grapefruit spoon, a vegetable peeler with a swiveling blade (sometimes called a Y peeler) and a large empty bowl or a trash can for the discards.
Begin by holding the artichoke bulb by its base. Press the thumb of one hand against the base of a leaf; with the other hand grasp the tip of the leaf and pull it sharply back against the thumb of the first hand, snapping off the leaf just above its paler base—do not remove the base because it’s a desirable part of the artichoke; go around the bulb snapping away leaf by leaf until you have exposed a pale-colored central cone dark only at its tip; using the chef’s knife, cut off the top of the cone leaving just its pale base; with the half lemon rub the cut edges of the artichoke to keep them from getting dark. **You are now able to look into the artichoke’s center, where there is a ring of soft, tiny leaves with prickly tips that curve inward. Use the tip of the paring knife or the grapefruit spoon to scrape them away along with the fuzzy choke beneath them. Do not carve away any part of the artichoke’s tender and delicious bottom. Take a last look at the outside of the bulb, where you see the stumps of the leaves you snapped away. If you spot any remaining dark green part, pare it away now.
If you are making artichokes Roman style, in which the full stem remains attached to the bulb, leave the stem on. For other preparations, detach it, but do not discard it, because it is very good to eat. Cut off a quarter-inch disk from the stem’s bottom. A dark green layer sheathes the stem’s pale core. The core is tender and delectable, but the outer dark green layer is tough and stringy and must be stripped completely away with the paring knife or vegetable peeler. Drop the trimmed bulb and stem in the bowl of lemony water, and continue until you have prepped all your artichokes. Keep large trimmed artichokes in the water up to a few hours before you cook them. If you are working with baby artichokes, you can keep them for at least a week in the refrigerator. Pack them as close as possible in a glass jar with half a squeezed lemon, and fill the jar to overflowing with lemony water. Screw the cap on tightly.
- 4 large artichokes
- 1/2 lemon
- 3 tablespoons finely chopped parsley
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely chopped garlic
- 1/2 teaspoon crumbled mint leaves
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup olive oil
Text excerpted from Ingredienti: Marcella’s Guide to the Market by Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan. Copyright © 2016 Marcella Hazan and Victor Hazan. Published by Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. Reprinted with permission.
Tell us: What did Marcella teach you?