Think Italian for spring
By ANN M. EVANS
and GEORGEANNE BRENNAN
From the Ground Up
In early March there are still a few weeks until spring officially arrives, but some early spring favorites are appearing as the days lengthen and the temperature rises. Asparagus spears are peeking out of the bare ground, artichokes are budding, fava beans are setting, and green garlic will be at its peak over the next month. As we lick our lips in anticipation of cooking with these archetypical Mediterranean vegetables, it’s hard not to think in terms of Italian.
Italy reveres its seasonal vegetables, and none more so than artichokes and asparagus.
When it’s spring artichoke season towns across Italy hold festivals celebrating the vegetable and the local restaurants feature special menus where artichokes are featured in every course except dessert. Risottos, frittatas, pastas and polenta dishes, veal, rabbit, and fish are all prepared with artichokes. No one can get enough of the edible thistle.
Long traditions in different regions of Italy have evolved regional specialties.
In Rome, the two artichoke classics are Fried Artichokes, from the Sephardic Jews who lived there as far back as the Roman Empire, and Alla Romana, whole artichokes filled with a savory stuffing then roasted.
A specialty of Florence is a “wet” artichoke frittata, where the eggs are a loose and runny to be sopped up with bread, and in Calabria, at the tip of the Italian boot, pan-fried artichokes with garlic, pecorino and toasted breadcrumbs. You’ll find also find artichoke crudo, raw artichokes served with coarse sea salt and lots of unctuous extra-virgin oil for dipping, and sometimes wrapped in prosciutto.
There are multiple varieties of artichokes in Italy, ranging from the large-headed, thornless globes to near prehistoric types in shades of purple, with sharp thorns tipping almost every leaf. Certain varieties are cut with long stems, which are meant to be eaten, and which are as tender as the heart.
Asparagus season, which follows artichokes, is treated to the same celebrations and special menus. Different regions regale their inhabitants with traditional specialties. In the north, in the Val d’Aosta, it is Artichoke Fonduta, essentially steamed asparagus napped in fondue sauce, made from the local Fontina cheese. Ravenna, on the Adriatic coast, is famous for its asparagus, and asparagus risotto is a favorite.
Bassano, in the northeast of Italy, is the major producer of white asparagus, plump and tender. Like other asparagus, it is served in many different ways during its season, but the classic dish is simply steamed spears, dressed with vinaigrette, and sometimes garnished with some finely chopped egg.
As the locally grown asparagus and artichokes start coming into the full flush of their season, let’s do as the Italians do and eat them in as many different ways as possible.
Although asparagus can be found nearly year round, some coming from Mexico or even Chile, the local asparagus season, with much of it coming from the Capay Valley and the Sacramento Delta region, is relatively brief. These asparagus come almost directly to market and are so sweet they can be eaten raw.
Some farmers in the greater Sacramento region grow artichokes, but the majority of them come from the Castroville area, which produces over 90 percent of the artichokes grown and consumed in the United States. From our point of view, Castroville is pretty local, and the spring crop yields the most tender buds.
Italian Stuffed Artichokes
The freshly torn bread in the stuffing absorbs the vinegar, olive oil, and seasonings to make a light, flavorful filling, and the coarser the bread, the better. This dish makes an exceptional first course, one which takes a bit of convivial time to eat.
4 medium artichokes
1 cup water
4 cups fresh bread crumbs, made from a coarse country bread such as ciabatta or a rustic baguette
5 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley (about 1 bunch)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Putting it together
Cut off the stem flush with the base and the top one-third (the prickly leaf ends) of each artichoke. Pour water to a depth of about 3 inches into a steamer pan, put the rack in place, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Place the artichokes, stem end up, on the rack, reduce the heat to medium, cover, and steam until the base of an artichoke offers little resistance when pierced with the tines of a fork, about 30 minutes. The timing will depend on the size and maturity of the artichokes.
Remove the artichokes from the steamer and set aside until cool enough to handle. Then, using a spoon, scoop out the central leaves from each artichoke, removing the thistles and any furry bits, to make a cavity about 11/2 inches wide. Set the artichokes aside.
In a bowl, combine the water and breadcrumbs and stir to moisten the crumbs evenly. Let stand just long enough to soften the bread, anywhere from 15 seconds to several minutes, depending on how dry the bread is and how coarse the crumbs are. Squeeze the breadcrumbs dry and transfer to a clean bowl.
Add the vinegar, parsley, garlic (if using), 1/2 teaspoon of the salt, the pepper, the lemon juice and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the bread and mix well. Taste and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if needed. The mixture will appear fluffy but should be dense enough to hold its shape when squeezed into a ball. Add up to 1 tablespoon additional oil if needed to achieve the correct consistency.
Spoon about 1/4 cup of the stuffing into the cavity of an artichoke. Pry back a layer of the leaves, and tuck 1/2 teaspoon or so of the stuffing at the base of each leaf in the layer. Pry back another layer and repeat. Continue until you have filled all of the layers. The artichoke will expand like a flower. Repeat with the remaining 3 artichokes.
Cover the artichokes with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours or up to 8 hours before serving. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving.
Adapted from The Davis Farmers Market Cookbook.
Ann M. Evans and Georgeanne Brennan are coauthors of the award winning “Davis Farmers Market Cookbook, Tasting California’s Small Farms,” (2012.) Co-leaders of Slow Food Yolo, they have a food and agricultural consultancy, Evans & Brennan, LLC. Their blog “Who’s Cooking School Lunch?” features personal stories of front line men and women cooking school lunch. Reach the blog at www.whoscookingschoolunch.com and Ann and Georgeanne at firstname.lastname@example.org.