The first time you eat one of these artichokes, it is so delicious, you will want to cry. It’s also beautiful – like a crispy chrysanthemum. You vow that you are going to make these Roman Jewish deep-fried artichokes the minute you get home, so you can enjoy them again and again. Oh, would that it were so simple. Carciofi alla giudia is easier to write about than to cook. American artichokes are not like Roman artichokes. Ours have tough, fibrous chokes and prickly spines at the ends of the outer leaves. Most of theirs do not. When we get artichokes at the market, the stems are no longer moist and tender, if they are attached at all. Roman artichokes come to the market with their long stems intact – tender and flexible.
I know you’ve seen recipes for carciofi alla giudia in cookbooks. They all look easy: just pound the chokes open and fry. But if you have tried to make them, you are probably as frustrated as I was. The stems are tough! The leaves fall off!
I experimented with these for over a year. My chances for complete success are now about eighty to twenty. I’d like to share the process with you.
First, remove the tough outer leaves that have the prickly spines. You must keep enough of the inner leaves to form a large, pointy, pale green core. The next step, opening the leaves, seems simple enough. Some suggest tapping one artichoke against the other, others call for pushing a lemon into the center. Once done, very gently scoop out the choke with a melon baller or spoon. Now flatten the artichoke on a tabletop, again gently. Herein lies the potential for disaster: if the artichokes are not flexible and tender, more often than not the leaves crack in the opening process and then break off in the final frying, leaving you with a choke but no flower.
To get around this, I have used baby artichokes that have soft, tender chokes, but they are really too small to make a flower. They taste great, but they aren’t chrysanthemums – more like dandelions after the wind. The small ones will, however, give you the crispy texture of the classic carciofi alla giudia and are easy to work with. In other words, they’re a good start.
I have tried jumbo artichokes, but the chokes are really tough and hard to remove without major leaf loss. I have finally resorted to the medium size variety. (In the Bay Area, where I live, I have found one farmer who is growing chokeless, spineless artichokes. They work well for the classic Roman recipe, but these are hard to find, as supply is limited.) To keep your sanity, make this for two to four people the first few times – good friends who will enjoy them and appreciate your efforts even if the artichokes are not perfect.
Fill a large bowl with cold water and squeeze the juice of one of the lemons into it. Halve the remaining lemon.
Working with one artichoke at a time, cut off all but one and a half inches of the stem. Pare the stems and the base, removing the dark green areas, then rub with the cut lemon. Remove all of the tough outer leaves until you reach a pale green, pointy core about one-and-one-fourth to one-and-a-half inches in diameter at its base. Carefully open the leaves by rapping the artichoke very gently on a tabletop or poking it open with your fingers. Be careful not to crack the leaves at their base. (Inspect for insects at this point; see note.) Carefully scoop out the choke with a melon baller or a small pointed spoon.
Rub with the cut lemon. As each artichoke is trimmed, drop it into the lemon water. Drain them well, dry with a kitchen towel, and place, stem up, on another towel.
For the first cooking, select a pot that is large enough to hold all of the artichokes, stem up. Place them in the pot, fill halfway with olive oil, and then add water to cover. Bring to a simmer and cook gently, uncovered, until just cooked through, but not soft, 15 to 17 minutes. Test the base with a thin wooden skewer. If they are undercooked, the second frying will take at least 10 to 12 minutes and is riskier, as more leaves may fall off. Despite that, it is better that they are undercooked than overcooked.
Remove from the pot and place on a platter, stem up, pressing down gently to keep an open flower shape. You can prepare the artichokes up to this point two to three hours in advance.
For the second cooking, select a deep cast-iron frying pan. Pour in olive oil to a depth of two and a half inches and heat to about 350 degrees Fahrenheit (a low boil). Add two artichokes, stem up, holding them open with tongs, pressing down. Fry them until golden and crisp, about eight minutes. Transfer to paper towels to drain, then sprinkle with salt. Keep warm in a low oven. Fry the remaining artichokes the same way. It is just about impossible to fry four artichokes at a time, as you can’t hold them down and flat unless two of you are cooking them at the same time or you are an octopus.
Eat at once. Swear not to be discouraged if many of the leaves fell off. They are still scrumptious, aren’t they?
Artichokes are often infested with aphids and thrips. According to the OU they may be examined by spreading apart the leaves (do this very carefully so as to keep them intact for preparing the Carciofi alla Giudia) and carefully examining around and between the leaves. If no sign of insect infestation, wash thoroughly and proceed to use.
Recipe reproduced with kind permission from Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (Chronicle Books, 1998). The latest cookbook from prolific author Joyce Goldstein is Jam Session (Lorena Jones Books, 2018).