Leave home, leave the country, leave the familiar. Only then routine experience – buying bread, eating vegetables, even saying hello – become new all over again.
– Anthony Doerr, Four Seasons in Rome
Thanks to my mother, my culinary upbringing was an adventurous one. My early years were spent in rear-facing seats of a Volvo, watching borders go by as we followed my father’s postings around Europe. Pit stops in Italy meant the seats could have somewhat of a restricted view, once my mother’s cans of olive oil, budding lemon trees and jars of passata had been loaded in around us. I think my shin still bares the imprint of spaghetti.
From our Portuguese friends in Vienna to the much-loved trattoria of our childhood Tuscan breaks, my mother never left a table without asking for a recipe. When we did eventually move back to England, each meal told the story of our travels. Inviting my new friends home from school, they didn’t quite know what to make of ribollita, moussaka and homemade, salty olive bread.
Upon arrival in Rome, I thought I knew what to do with an artichoke. They were peeled apart and dunked in thick mustardy vinaigrette. I had learnt how to get to the tender heart before I could recite my times tables. But during those early weeks of January, it was this routine experience that became new again. In season from early winter right through until spring, artichokes present a spectrum of culinary opportunity that I had never thought possible. Romans eat them raw, thinly sliced with lemon juice and olive oil, braised in stews and unrepentantly deep-fried. The possibilities are endless, as the vegetable slips in seamlessly with whatever else happens to be in season.
I think what restricts the British view of an artichoke is that we simply don’t know how to handle one. But as I soon came to appreciate – you learn fast when you’re preparing fifty of them for a busy lunch service – we needn’t be intimidated by artichokes. A simple technique, a small knife and some lemon juice is all that is required to unlock this new world of seasonal flavour. Take your first steps together with last summer’s dried borlotti beans and the final garden cuttings of parsley.
Borlotti beans, artichokes and parsley
Serves two for lunch, or four with a roast chicken.
This recipe is not complicated but requires you to plan ahead a little. The beans need to soak for eight hours (overnight) and then will take around two hours to cook. Either throw them on as soon as you walk through the door from work, or just as the Archers’ omnibus is starting. Once they’re cooked, the rest will take no more than twenty minutes – even tackling the artichokes.
200g dried borlotti beans, soaked for eight hours
Four cloves of garlic, one thinly sliced
A whole chilli
A generous bunch of parsley, chopped. Keep the stalks!
Pinch of chilli flakes
Olive oil – 1tbs plus at least 100ml
- Tip the soaked beans into a large pan, filling it right to the top with cold water. Drop in the whole chilli, garlic cloves and parsley stalks, saving the leaves for later.
- Bring to the boil and then turn down to a steady simmer. Cook for up to two hours – they’re ready when smooth in texture, with no dryness or bite to the taste. When the beans are nearly ready, turn your attention to the artichokes.
- Have a lemon half handy and pick up your first artichoke. Peel away the tough outer leaves until you’re left with pale, tender inners. You’ll know when to stop when the leaves peel away silently, rather than with an audible clicking noise.
- Rub the leaves with a lemon half. Cut off the top third of the artichoke leaves and trim the stalk to thumb length.
- Using a small knife, trim off the fibrous outer layer of the stalk and the hard collar around the base of the leaves. It’s easiest to do this from the top of the stalk downwards, stopping once both the stalk and base are pale green, nearly white in colour. Rub with the lemon half.
- Slice the artichoke in half lengthways through its head and stalk, then remove the hairy inner choke with a teaspoon.
- Cut side down, slice the artichoke thinly. Immediately put into a large bowl with the juice of half a lemon, a sprinkling of salt and a good splash of olive oil. This will stop them from going brown while you prepare the other artichokes.
- Repeat for the other artichokes, adding more lemon juice and olive oil to make sure the slices are well covered.
- Drain the cooked beans, throwing away the parsley stalks and chilli. I don’t really mind if the garlic cloves stay in.
- Pour back into the saucepan and season well with salt, pepper and olive oil. Don’t be shy with the oil – I would say you’ll need at least 100ml – as freshly cooked beans are like sponges.
- Gently heat the sliced garlic and dried chilli flakes in a tablespoon of olive oil in a wide frying pan. Before the garlic goes brown, throw in the sliced artichokes. Raise the heat and fry for five minutes, stirring continuously, until the artichokes are tender but not browned.
- Fold in the beans, handfuls of parsley and the juice of a lemon. Serve on its own, with a poached egg or side by side with your Sunday roast chicken.
Note. You could make this recipe with tinned beans of any variety and a jar of those delicious artichoke hearts. Simply heat the drained beans with plenty of oil and seasoning before stirring in the artichokes. However I would urge you to try cooking both from scratch, if only to admire the Giotto-esque palette of a dried borlotti bean. And once you’ve mastered how to prepare an artichoke, untold Roman delights await you.
Illustrations by Olivia Amato-Pace.