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In spring, insalata di carciofi makes an appearance on trattoria menus across Tuscany. This antipasto is also a very simple and very quick one to make at home, containing thinly sliced artichokes, a good sprinkling of your best salt, and some shavings of Parmesan cheese, an excellent foil for the astringency of raw artichokes. Tart lemon juice and a rather peppery olive oil round things off nicely. It goes with everything from fish to meat, and could be a meal on its own—perhaps plumped out with a heavy ball of burrata, some really good anchovies, and crusty bread.
In Italy we are spoiled with the most wonderful artichokes—they are native, after all. Every market and roadside stall is brimming with piles of long-stemmed artichokes spilling out over their crates at this time of year, perhaps soon to be stuffed and braised, or baked, or cooked in a medley of spring vegetables, or trimmed into a rose-like shape and deep fried whole alla giudia, a specialty of the Roman ghetto.
First, you want to choose good artichokes. Here in Tuscany, you most commonly find the dark purple kind with a pointed head and tiny thorns on each leaf. For this raw salad, you want lovely, young, tender artichokes rather than older, hairy, tough ones that do better when cooked. Give them a little squeeze in the palm of your hand—young artichokes should be firm, not springy.
When you're ready to prepare them, have ready a large bowl of cold water with half a lemon squeezed into it. Keep the other lemon half handy for rubbing any cut parts of the artichoke as you go (and squeezing the juice over as a dressing in the final stage). Artichokes oxidize when exposed to the air, and you will want to make sure they don’t go black for this pretty, raw and simple salad; so use that lemon well. Then, peel the leaves off one by one until you reach the most tender and pale-yellow colored leaves. It will look like you're throwing away a lot of the artichoke, but you won't feel bad once you've accidentally tried to eat the hard, woody, spiky, essentially inedible tough outer leaves. Pull them all off without regret.
The only thing slightly difficult about this salad is choosing what to drink with it. White wine will amplify the ‘greenness’ of the raw artichokes, and red will bring out their tannin-like astringency. Or—you could go orange. It may be best, though, to leave wine out for this course and go with a cool glass of water, which you will notice will taste so very sweet after a few bites of insalata di carciofi.