Throughout markets in Venice, you see tubs of water containing strange floating pale green discs and lemon halves, which at first glance, may be a bit baffling. These are artichoke bases, the sweet flesh that sits under the hairy choke, which when cooked until tender, make it easy work for the person eating, as the hard part of peeling off dozens of leaves to get to the central prize has been done for you. This is also a great way to use older artichokes – ones that that may be large, with leathery leaves that are just starting to open, and not as suitable for stuffing. I have wonderful memories of buying the discs at the Rialto Market, or one of the road (read – canal) side markets, and taking them back to my apartment and cooking them.
The Venetians have a really quick way to get to the base/bottom (or in Italian fondo) as you can see from this video. I tend to not be as brutal, as I leave a bit more of the head (where the pointy parts of the leaves are), then I scoop out the hairy choke. This makes the disc a bit thicker, less of an even shape – and you will see that I am nowhere near as proficient as cutting them as the Venetians are – but they are just as delicious albeit slightly mis-shapen (read “rustic looking”). And they have a central well that contains the pan juices after cooking very nicely. Vendors usually sell the “fondi” to you with a couple of parsley stalks, which come in handy during cooking. They are eaten as an appetiser (or cicheti), or a light primo, accompanied by a glass of dry white Soave.
Learning to cut artichokes is a bit of an art – just remember to have a bowl of acidulated water next to you and rub the cut parts with a lemon half so they discolour less. The lemon does not impart any flavour but artichokes look a lot prettier when less discoloured. Buy more artichokes than you need (if you have never cooked with whole ones), then experiment. Make sure you have a sharp knife (and maybe thick gloves – see the left thumb covered of the market-worker above) as they can be quite tough to cut. And eventually you will peel back the layers and have little saucers prepared, that will bob up and down in your bowl of lemony water. And when you cook them, with garlic, olive oil and white wine, the way I do, you will realise that they are buttery, savoury and very delicious; maybe they will also remind you of Venice.
pan-fried artichoke bases (fondi di carciofo in tegame)
4 large artichokes (assume 1-2 artichokes per person)
1 lemon, halved
a good splash of extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, peeled and bruised
1/3 – 1/2 cup dry white wine
tablespoon parsley leaves, chopped
salt and papper to taste
Have a large bowl of water to one side, add the lemon halves and squeeze a bit of juice in the water. Leave the lemon halves in the water.
To clean the artichokes, remove the stem and sides with a sharp knife, then cut off most of the head with the leaves. See this video for how to cut the disc clean; I however tend to leave more of the leaves, then clean out the choke with a spoon so that the base becomes a saucer. Make sure you rub the artichoke bases well with a lemon half and then drop them in the water. Repeat with all the artichokes. If you have any stems, keep the 5 or so centimetres closest to the artichoke and then peel the tough outer skin, rub the cut part of the stem with lemon and pop those in the bowl of water as well.
Heat a frypan that will comfortably fit all the artichokes bases (and stems if you have any) on medium heat with a good splash of EVOO, then drop in the whole bruised garlic clove. When the garlic becomes fragrant, pop the bases (and stems if you have any) into the pan. Pan fry at medium heat until the artichokes warm through, then turn the heat up and add the white wine. Allow the wine to evaporate, then lower the heat, cover and cook, turning the bases (and stems) over halfway, for about 20 minutes (depending on size), adding salt and pepper to taste. They are ready when fork-tender and there should be quite a few pan juices left. Discard the garlic. Serve warm, scattered wth chopped parsley leaves and serve with soft white polenta if you like.