Italians, particularly Jewish Italians, are somewhat responsible for pushing artichokes into global popularity. In his Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, historian Gil Marks explains that Italian Jews favored artichokes early on, while non-Jewish Italians showed distaste for them, often referring to them as “the Jewish vegetables.” In the 1500s, Pope Paul IV forced all the Jews in Rome to live within a secluded ghetto where food and water were scarce. Out of necessity, frying over an open fire became a popular cooking method. Artichokes, which were one of the few plentiful food sources, were eaten fried. Over time, the artichoke gained favor with all Italians, including the Medicis of Florence. Catherine de Medici, who was known for her insatiable appetite, brought artichokes to France when she married Henry II. Until this time, they were considered something of a novelty.
Artichokes are my favorite vegetable, and may very well be my favorite food. As you might imagine, I’ve cooked and eaten them in a multitude of ways. The most surprising preparation I’ve ever tasted, and perhaps the most delicious, was first served to me at an Italian restaurant in Miami Beach, Florida. This dish, known as carciofi alla giudea or artichokes “Jewish style,” has roots in Pope Paul IV’s Jewish ghetto. In Italy the dish is usually made with Romanesco artichokes, which are purple, more tender and less thorny than the globe artichokes commonly available in America. To replicate the texture of the Romanesco version of this dish, I took a tip from the restaurant’s chef and steamed my globe artichokes lightly before frying. I also split the artichokes in half, which allows them to cook faster and more evenly (it also makes them easier to eat!). I sliced the leaves close to the heart, which resulted in a pretty flower-like crown on top. The result was divine—a perfectly crisp golden exterior with a tender, slightly sweet inner heart. It’s a flavor symphony. Mangia!
- Note: Common green globe artichokes will work fine in this recipe. If you can track down purple Romanesco artichokes, even better!
- Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Squeeze two lemons into the bowl of water, stir, then throw in the squeezed lemon halves. This lemon water will keep your artichokes fresh and green till you’re ready to fry them. Keep a couple of fresh lemon halves on hand as you prep. Rinse your artichokes under cold water. Pat them dry with a clean kitchen towel or paper towel. With kitchen shears or sharp scissors, remove the thorny tips from the leaves. For each artichoke, remove the bitter, fibrous end of the stem with your knife, leaving about 1 1/2 inches of stem attached to the artichoke.
- Use a serrated peeler or paring knife to peel the outer skin from the remaining stem. The stem has a more bitter taste than the rest of the artichoke; removing the skin helps to take away some of the bitterness. Rub the peeled stem with fresh lemon to keep it from browning.
- Peel off 5-6 layers of external leaves from the artichoke, snapping off the leaves and setting them aside, till you reach an inner layer of leaves that are fresh looking and white at the base.
- With a serrated knife or sharp chef’s knife, slice the artichoke horizontally about ¾ inch above the base (heart) to remove the pointy top of the artichoke, leaving a flat crown of leaves on the base of the artichoke while exposing the inner purple leaves.
- Slice the artichoke in half lengthwise, splitting the stem and heart in half vertically to reveal the inner fuzzy choke.
- Scoop out the fuzzy spines and purple leaves from each artichoke half with a melon baller, leaving behind two hollowed out halves of heart, each with a small crown of flat leaves.
- You may wish to place the artichoke halves under cold running water to remove any stubborn bits of fuzzy choke.
- Rub the heart with lemon, then place it in the bowl of lemon water. Repeat process with the other remaining artichokes.
- When ready to cook, remove the artichoke halves from the lemon water. Pour the lemon water and juiced lemon halves into a large pot; you will need about 1 ½ inches of water, so if you don’t have enough, add more water to top it off. Place a steamer basket inside the pot and bring water to a boil. Place the cleaned artichoke halves into the steamer basket and cover the pot with a lid. Reduce heat to medium.
- Let the artichokes steam for 15-20 minutes till a knife or fork can be inserted easily into the thickest part of the stem. You want the artichokes to be lightly steamed and a bit tender, but still firm—they should only be partially cooked.
- Place the steamed artichoke halves onto a layer of paper towels and let them drain. Heat 1 inch of olive oil to around 375 degrees F, hot enough for frying but not so hot that it smokes. While oil is heating, sprinkle the artichoke halves with salt and pepper, making sure to sprinkle inside the layers of leaves as well.
- Place the artichokes gently into the heated oil and let them fry for about 15 minutes, using a pair of tongs to turn them once halfway through cooking, till artichokes are golden brown and the leaves are crisp.
- Remove from the oil and let them drain on paper towels or a wire rack. Serve fried artichokes warm with fresh sliced lemon wedges.
Note: Strictly kosher Jews have their own guidelines for cleaning and consuming artichokes, which differ from the tutorials that appear on my site. If you’re concerned, you can learn more on the OK website.