Monday, May 1, 2006

Carciofi alla Giudia and other experiments

I’ve been one frustrated little food blogger lately. Some dishes of last week had good pictures, some had good stories, and some actually tasted good. But none had all three qualities that inspire you to write. It all started with my attempt to make carciofi alla giudia (deep-fried artichokes). I fell under the spell of this rose bud looking dish on our trip to Rome, but have never attempted it at home until a recent post on chowhound’s home cooking board brought back the memories of crispy leaves and juicy artichoke hearts. After being haunted by artichokes for weeks, I finally decided to give it a try. To be on the safe side, I consulted a few more authorities on this matter: Ilva at Lucullian Delights, and Marcella Hazan’s book. I figured how hard can it be – trim artichokes and put them in hot oil? Others are doing it. Why can’t I? So what if I’ve never cooked artichokes before and I have a serious phobia of deep-frying at home. There is really nothing like peer pressure and trying to recreate a meal from my travels to make me lose my head.

The good news is that I learned to trim artichokes. The bad news is that dropping artichokes covered in lemon juice into hot oil resulted in an oil explosion and the biggest mess my kitchen has ever seen. I was lucky my oil didn’t inflame! So, kids don’t try this at home. I ended up with a burnt artichoke and half an hour of degreasing my stove, counter and floor. So the story of “Helen conquers her fear of deep-frying and learns to cook artichokes to bring back the taste of Rome” turns into “Helen almost sets her kitchen on fire in spite of having the guidance of 3 recipes.” Good thing I made some gnocchi with roasted tomato sauce. They made a good comfort food dish after the artichoke disaster.

But I was determined not to give up on artichokes. I got some more the next day and decided to braise them. By now, I was getting pretty good at trimming them (I went through a lot of artichokes this weekend) and this time the cooking was less dramatic. I poured a little oil into a hot pan, added artichokes, garlic, parsley, lemon zest, juice and water. Then covered the pan and cooked on low for 10 minutes. This time, the artichokes were quite decent, but not much better than the canned. So I am still on a search for a great artichoke recipe. If you know of one, please let me know.

My other cooking experiment involved making pissaladière (a Provencal pizza with caramelized onions, olives, and anchovies). For the first time in my life, I botched up the toppings, not the dough. I am still in shock about it. For the dough, I used Reinhart’s recipe for focaccia and it turned out extremely well, but by the time the dough was done, the toppings got a little burnt (anchovies got particularly nasty). Of course, getting a recipe would probably be a good idea, but who thought you’d need a recipe for toppings!

Luckily, I saved half of the dough and made a regular focaccia with it tonight. It was unbelievably close to what I had in Liguria.

We put some fig jam, prosciutto, cheddar, and leftover caramelized onions inside and made grilled sandwiches that were so good, they redeemed all the weekend’s disasters.

Sometimes, leftovers simply taste good, and sometimes they give you a second chance.


Dianka said...

Oh no! Looks like you made up for the explosion though! Your dishes look very impressive.


Amy said...

Oh my that pannini looks wonderful. Fig jam is so under-utilized!

Helen said...

Hi Amy,

I agree with you about fig jam -- it's completely addictive, if you ask me :) I found it in the cheese section of Whole Foods portioned out into small plastic containers. This let me buy just as much as I needed for these sandwiches. If I were to open a full jar of it, I bet it would be gone in a few days. I also makes some amazing tartlets with blue cheese -- mmmm!

Anonymous said...

Hi Helen,

I am glad yo see you were persitent and tried to win on those artichokes again. Fig jam, miam!

Anonymous said...

Could I bring up the subject of eggplants? ;)

Helen said...

Hi Anonymous,

What about eggplants would you like to bring up?


Anonymous said...

While I'm sorry to hear about your artichokes, the picture is lovely.

And your gnocchi look fantastic, Helen. As does the pissaladiere. I wouldn't even have minded the nasty anchovies.

You're a wonderful cook!

Helen said...

Oh Ivonne,

You are so kind :) Thank you so much for all your encouragement guys! I am not done with those artichokes just yet -- I'll try to give them another shot this weekend.


Gia-Gina said...

Carciofi alla Guidea is a very old dish or so my hubby, a Roman says. It is famous in Rome as Guidea means Jewish and they are served in the Jewish quarter of Rome. The first time I stepped onto the streets of Rome I was led to a restaurant to try Carciofi alla Guidea and Carciofi alla Romana. Both fantastic.

I pesonally also like Carciofini Fritto Misto, tender young artichokes, cleaned, cut and fried. You might be having trouble b/c the artichokes in the states are nothing like the ones here.

Anonymous said...

Hi There,

I'm a writer and amateur cook living north of Toronto. Last summer my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting some relatives in the Campania region of southern Italy. In the southern part of Campania, near the famous ruins of the Greek colony of Paestum, grow the greatest carciofi (artichokes) in the world. These likely would have been the artichokes you ate during your visit to Rome. To make a long story short, your problem isn't you --it's the artichokes! What I think a lot of foodies miss, is this element of what I call 'locality': Food tastes wonderful in Italy, not just because of the recipes, and the good cooks, but because the ingredients themselves are better, in every possible way.

Anonymous said...

Oh fer cryin' out loud! Don't be afraid to deep fry!

Try your artichokes again. Peel 'em like the expert you are, push them flat against the counter to open them up, then set aside (you can put them in the lemon water if you want to feel better, but it won't matter since you're browning the buggers anyway).

Heat a deep pan with canola (or other high-smoke oil) to 275F (you read that right), then place your artichokes in, and let them cook for 15 to 20 minutes (yes, 15 to 20 - you're not making French fries), turn them once, take them out, let them drain and cool completely (about 15 minutes).

Heat the oil to 350F (a little warmer is okay), drop those suckers into the oil for 3 to 5 minutes. They should brown beautifully.

Drain and serve.

There. That's the way we do it.

Mario B.

Helen said...

Hi Mario,

I couldn't stop laughing while reading your comment. Do you refer to all food things as "buggers" and "suckers"?