By Tori Avey
I grew up on the Central Coast of California, a peaceful stretch of countryside halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. At 6 years old, I started second grade at a new elementary school in our neighborhood. That first year, students were asked to write an essay about something important to them. The essays were sealed in an airtight canister and buried beneath the playground in a “time capsule.” As a class, we thought long and hard about what our individual topics would be. I chose a subject I felt passionate about… a topic that resonated with me on a deep, emotional level. I wrote about artichokes.
Looking back, I suppose it was an odd obsession. Artichokes aren’t exactly “kid friendly” vegetables, yet I’ve always loved them. Eating an artichoke is like hunting for buried treasure — scraping the leaves with your teeth, each one teasing you toward the heart. It takes work to reach the center, but it’s worth the effort. There is nothing so delicious as a tender, steamed artichoke heart.
Artichokes are actually young, unopened thistle buds from the daisy family, descendants of a similar thistle known as a cardoon. Most historians agree that artichokes first appeared in the Mediterranean basin. Though we don’t know exactly when artichokes became recognized as a food source, Jews have eaten them for several centuries. The Talmud instructs that for a festival, “one may prepare artichoke and thistle and bake in a large oven…” The ancient Israelites even had a special unit of measurement for artichokes known as kundasa. By the 11th century, after the Moors began cultivating artichokes in Spain, Sephardic Jews adopted and used them frequently in their cuisine.
Italian Jews are somewhat responsible for pushing artichokes into global popularity. In his “Encyclopedia of Jewish Food,” historian Gil Marks explains that Jewish Italians favored artichokes early on, while non-Jewish Italians showed distaste for them, often referring to them as “the Jewish vegetable.” In the 1500s, Pope Paul IV forced all the Jews in Rome to live within a secluded ghetto where food and water were scarce. 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 most Italians, including Catherine de’ Medici, who brought them to France when she married King Henry II.
There are now more than 50 varieties of culinary artichokes in the world. Here in America we are most familiar with a green variety known as the “globe.” Earlier this year, the artichoke was chosen as California’s official “State Vegetable” — fitting, since my home state supplies all of the commercially available globe artichokes in America. The artichoke’s journey to California began on the East Coast, where French-allied soldiers introduced them during the Revolutionary War. Globe artichokes began appearing in Virginia around the 1720s. In California, the artichoke was not recognized as a favorable cash crop until the 1890s, when Italian farmers planted them in Half Moon Bay. By 1904, they were filling boxcars with artichokes to send to the East Coast. In 1922, the Italian farmers moved their artichokes to California’s Salinas Valley, where the town of Castroville designated itself the “Artichoke Capital of the World.”
The most surprising artichoke preparation I’ve ever tasted was first served to me at an Italian restaurant in Miami Beach, Fla. This deep-fried 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 more tender than globe artichokes. To replicate the texture of the Romanesco, 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. If somebody asked me to contribute to a time capsule today, I’d dedicate a whole essay to this dish. Mangia!
Jewish Fried Artichokes
Olive oil for frying
Salt and pepper
4-5 fresh lemons
Prep and Cook Time: 1 hour
Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Squeeze two lemons into the bowl, stir, then throw in the squeezed lemon halves. Keep a couple of fresh lemon halves on hand as you prep.
For each artichoke, use kitchen shears to cut thorny tips from the leaves. Slice off the bitter, fibrous end of the stem, leaving 1½ inches attached to artichoke. Peel the outer skin from the remaining stem. Rub peeled stem with fresh lemon to keep it from browning. Snap off five to six layers of external leaves from artichoke till you reach leaves that are white at the base. With a chef’s knife, slice the artichoke horizontally ¾ inch above the base (heart) to remove pointy top of the artichoke, leaving a flat crown of leaves on the base of the artichoke and exposing inner purple leaves. Slice the artichoke in half lengthwise. Scoop out the fuzzy spines and purple leaves from each half with a melon baller. Rub each half with lemon, then place in the bowl of lemon water. Repeat process with remaining artichokes.
Remove artichoke halves from lemon water. Pour lemon water into a large pot; you will need 1½ inches of water in the pot, so top off as needed. Place a steamer basket inside the pot and bring water to a boil. Place cleaned artichoke halves into the steamer basket and cover with a lid. Let artichokes steam for 15-20 minutes until a knife 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 — only partially cooked. Place artichokes onto a layer of paper towels and let them drain.
Heat one inch of olive oil in a large frying pan to 375 degrees F. Sprinkle artichokes with salt and pepper, then place them into the heated oil. Fry for about 15 minutes, turning them once halfway through cooking, till they are golden brown and crisp. Remove from oil and let them drain on a wire rack. Serve warm with fresh sliced lemon wedges.
Tori Avey is an award-winning food writer, recipe developer, and the creator of two cooking Web sites: The Shiksa in the Kitchen (www.theshiksa.com) and The History Kitchen (www.thehistorykitchen.com). She is the resident food historian for PBS Food and Parade.com. Follow Tori on Facebook by searching “The Shiksa” and on Twitter @theshiksa. For detailed instructions and step-by-step photos, click here: theshiksa.com/2013/06/12/jewish-fried-artichokes/