In California every spring (and briefly again in the fall) the baby artichokes arrive. It’s a very special moment, a seasonal splendor many of us cooks wait for. Especially those of us who’ve eaten the carciofi simply and elegantly prepared in Tuscany. One of the seven wonders of the culinary world!
I’ve written about finding my sweet spot with food when at 35, I left a hard-driving job on the east coast and took what I call my life sabbatical, arriving in Rome with no language and no luggage. What I haven’t shared is what happened after Rome, when I went up to Florence, largely because I thought I should. I didn’t really know what I was going to do other than continue studying Italian, since my skills were still not, um, very polished. In Italian class, the teacher shared information about a cooking class. All those memories of standing on a stool stirring soup in my mother’s and grandmother’s kitchens stirred something inside me…
Next thing I knew I was standing on a corner of the Via Taddea, where the big market is in the center of Florence. I’m waiting and waiting (turns out I was ½ hour early), not even sure who I’m waiting for. It’s late Friday afternoon. I’m thinking, if she doesn’t show up in 3 minutes… and here she came, with her basket—Judy Witts Francini, of Divina Cucina cooking school. Are you here for the cooking class? She asked. I am barely able to reply with my rudimentary Italian.
Up to her apartment we go. A bunch of Japanese students who were painting frescoes during the day and cooking with Judy on Friday nights, plus a couple of people from Germany and I comprised the 15 eager students in her big country kitchen in the middle of the city. Judy is an inspiration and an instigator. She’s outrageous! In other words, the perfect Italian cooking teacher.
It was late March, just where we are now, and a huge pile of baby artichokes was spread out on the counter. I had never SEEN anything like these. Teeny, purple...so beautiful I was afraid to cut them!
Personally, I’ve ALWAYS had a thing about artichokes, but growing up the only artichokes I knew were the BIG ones. My mother would steam them, and we’d pull out the leaves and dip them in butter and fight over the heart, because that’s the best part.
With the baby artichokes in Judy’s kitchen, I learned I just had to cut off the top then slice them in halves or quarters. They were so tender they could be shaved and eaten raw with olive oil, shaved pecorino, salt, pepper and parsley. Mmmmm…….The other thing Signoria Francinni did was braise them in olive oil and garlic, adding some water and simmering, topping with parsley. Voila!
She also taught me to make risotto -- artichoke risotto no less!
Under her wing
She did more than that. She took me under her wing. She spoke nothing but Italian to me for two weeks. Then she said something to me that sounded suddenly SO American. I asked her where she was from. She said San Francisco! But with her rapid Italian no way you’d ever guess. She joked that she had the “seal of approval” because she had a Tuscan husband and had been there for 25 years.
Why are you speaking to me in Italian then? I asked. You’re watching me wilting over here!
It’s the only way you’ll learn, she replied. And the very best place to learn Italian is in the kitchen!
She is the reason I really became a cook. I offered myself in service to her to do anything. She sent me to cook for other people, sent me to the island of Elba, fed me panna cotta with strawberries, talked to me about what I wanted to do with my life. I had this huge question mark on my forehead! Am I going to stay in Italy? Am I going to go back? Am I going to cook?
She inspired me not only because her cooking was from the heart. Nourishment poured out of her. The cooking and the food was an extension of her being. She cooked with such ease, like a second skin, a true extension of her heart. And you could feel it. She had the secret ingredient—the Vitamin L. She cared about everyone who came into her cooking class. And it all came together, with nobody speaking the same language, except a little broken Italian.
Baby artichokes in Marin
Every March when I see those purple beauties, it takes me back to that time in my life. Food will do it. A good book will do it. That wonderful warm, nourished feeling. This farmer who grows these beautiful purple baby artichokes won’t let the chefs buy them, bless her heart, because she can only grow so many. The chefs would buy them all and there would be nothing left for us home cooks! She has a quota of two pounds per customer. That’s it.
I brought my allotment home and laid them out on the table to admire them. Then I had to take a picture. Then I had to draw them. Then of course I cooked them!
They’re only in season for 6 weeks. Asparagus, artichokes and English peas are the spring trio.
Among many healthful attributes, Artichokes are:
- An incredible liver tonic, perfect for spring!
- Not just beautiful and tasty but super high in fiber. Part of the spring cleaning crew, like asparagus.
- High in folate, Vitamins C and K, which is why you always want to bathe them in olive oil so you can absorb that K (a fat-soluble vitamin).
- No. 7 on the USDA’s list of high antioxidant foods, for their high ORAC score (Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity).
- High in the antioxidant flavonoid silymarin, which is especially protective of the liver.
From a taste perspective, artichokes have a bit of astringency to them which is why people like to dip them in a good fat, which helps make the nutrients more bioavailable.
What goes with artichokes?
- Garlic and lemon — classic!
- Plus olive oil and parsley
- Plus olive oil and herbs like mint, parsley, tarragon & lemon
- Fennel & potatoes
- Arugula, capers, lemon, olive oil, & parmesan cheese