Wednesday, April 14, 2010


"Carciofi - grandi, piccoli, verdi, viola - tutti belli." It's April so it's only natural that the  vendors in the markets of Pisa are hawking artichokes  - "big ones, small ones, green ones, purple ones,  all of them beautiful."

Just outside of town, bordered by the 16th-century Medici aqueduct and with the Pisan hills as a backdrop, the fields are bursting with the verdant abundant carciofi plants. On the Borgo Stretto, the little three-wheeled truck, incongruously named the Euro-Star, is full to the top with the flower of the gods -- so named because the Greek god Zeus is said to have created the artichoke.

A plant resembling the artichoke, possibly from the cardoon family, is mentioned in Greek and Latin writings. The Italian word carciofo, however,  comes from the Arab, al kharshuf, and it was the Arabs who brought the modern-day plant to Italy sometime in the 15th century. Since then, the Italians have made the artichoke their own, just as they did with the tomato which was brought to  Italy from the Americas in the 17th century. The artichoke made the reverse journey, arriving in California with Italian immigrants, who found there, on the coast of the Pacific, the cool, moist climate that artichokes love.  

Artichokes have many health benefits and, supposedly, regular consumption of artichokes is linked to healthier skin and improved skin luminosity. In 1947, Marilyn Monroe was named the first Miss California Artichoke Queen, and we all know how luminous her skin was.  Could it have been the artichokes?

The artichoke itself is the unopened flower of the plant. Baby artichokes are not simply small artichokes, but are secondary flowers that grow near the base of the stem, where they are protected by the dense foliage of the plant. No matter what the size, however, when the petals begin to open, the artichoke is overripe. So be sure to look for tightly closed ones.

There are approximately 90 different varieties of artichokes in Italy, but most never leave the area where they are grown. Every region has its special recipes. However, in the spring when artichokes are young and fresh, all they need is a little salt, some olive oil and perhaps a bit of garlic. Two Tuscan friends, who are very good cooks, suggested these simple recipes. I've named them in their honor.

Carciofi alla Fabrizio

Ingredients: artichokes, olive oil, salt, water.

  1. Wash the artichokes in cold water.
  2. Remove the small leaves at the base and all the exterior leaves until the very light green/yellow leaves appear. Cut off the pointy ends of the leaves. Don't be stingy here.  Much more of the artichokes goes into  the compost heap than in the pot. If you have the artichoke stems, peel, slice and cook them as well.  They are almost as good as the heart.
  3. Cut the artichokes in half or quarters depending on the size. Unless you have a variety of Italian artichoke that is spineless, remove the spiny choke with a knife.
  4. Wash again to remove any errant spines.
  5. Lightly cover the bottom of a frying pan with olive oil. Heat oil to medium, put in artichokes and sprinkle with sea salt
  6. Cook over medium heat. After a few minutes, add some water and cover the pan. When water evaporates, add more.
  7. Continue cooking in this manner until artichokes are very soft - 20 to 30 minutes.

Carciofi alla Paola

Ingredients: artichokes, olive oil, garlic, salt, water.
  1. Wash and clean as above. Cut artichokes lengthwise into slices.  
  2. Put in a pan with olive oil, turn heat to high, add artichokes and chopped garlic Sprinkle with sea salt.
  3. Cook over high heat, stirring constantly and adding water as above until artichokes are very soft, approximately 20-30 minutes.
My friend Angela suggested a variation to this recipe :  Peel some potatoes, cut lengthwise into the same thickness as the artichoke slices and cook along with the artichokes as instructed above. The recipe is called Padellata di Carciofi e Patate.

    To see more photos, click here.

    Buon appetito,

    Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor


    1. Aaaaah, recipes now, too! I'm loving it, Geraldine. You've succeeded in making me salivate.

    2. These blogs are such fun for a break at work - a real treat!. I *loved* this one!

    3. Hum, tu m' as donné faim et devine ce que nous aurons ce soir des artichauts à la barigoule, façon provençale avec du petit salé ou bacon + pommes de terre comme Angela et miam quel goût! Et puis on peut les manger cru en vinaigrette, ou coupés dans une salade.
      Je suis sure que beaucoup vont faire les recettes.
      Bon appétit.

    4. Beautiful herbage! And what was that recipe for cardoons we discussed in Portland? The artichokes died in the cold snap.

    5. Not sure which recipe we discussed, but the standard way to make "cardo" here in Italy is this. Peel the cardoon well and be sure to get rid of all the stingy parts. If you want to keep their color, put peeled ones in lemon water while you work on the others. Cut them into pieces and boil until tender - this an be 30-60 minutes depending on size and toughness of the cardo. (A little lemon in the boiling water preserves the color.) Drain and dry the cardo. Put olive oil (or butter if you prefer) in a frying pan with some chopped onion, When onion is golden, put in cardo and saute until golden and hot. Sprinkle with parmesan or even better pecorino cheese and serve. If you really want to be bad, make a gratin with cream sauce. Layer cardoons, pecorino cheese and cream sauce and brown in the oven.


    Thanks for your comments.