Cooking with my nonna – carciofi

24 Aug
Nonna makes carciofi

Nobody makes carciofi like this woman, my grandmother.

When I tell nonna that most artichoke recipes call for a lot of the leaves to be cut off, she looks disgusted.

“It’s waste. Waste! People have too much money! They didn’t live through the war. We ate potato peelings. The peelings of the potatoes!”

Nonna is showing me how to make artichokes – carciofi –  the way she has always made them, with breadcrumbs, parsley, garlic and not much else. Nothing, well nearly nothing, gets cut off and thrown away.

“Just the top of the leaves where they are really hard. And the stalks. Though you can cook them too.  Everything else is good. What do you think? We’re Americani! No.”

As I ponder nonna’s obsession with Americans and wealth – not a day goes by where she doesn’t mention their wasteful, extravagant ways – she shows me how to open up the artichoke with my hands and sprinkle a mix of breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, pepper and parmesan into each one.

As always, the question of quantity comes up. How much breadcrumbs, parsley, salt, pepper and parmesan?

“Tania, you always ask this question. You need as much as the artichoke needs. Use your eyes in your head to see!”

“But nonna, I can’t write that in the recipe, people won’t understand. And then they’ll ring me and abuse me for giving them a recipe that doesn’t work.”

“Pah! Just write ‘It needs as much as it needs’. They will understand. What are they? Stupid! Basta with this question! No more ‘how much’, ‘how much’…”

Nonna stuffing artichokes

Stuffed artichoke

Nonna moves the stuffed artichokes into a pan. She apologises.

“Sorry, sorry, see there should be seven artichokes, because seven fit. Five is no good. Too much space.”

Nonna is a serial apologiser. It’s like her diabetes – a disease. She always does it in English too. It is never “mi dispiace” but always “sorry, sorry”.

I take a photo. Nonna isn’t happy with the five artichokes in the picture. She grabs two stalks and puts them in the empty spaces.

“Better… but if only I had seven. Sorry, sorry.”

Artichokes in the pan

Five artichokes in the pan

As browned fried garlic is poured over the carciofi and they are put on the stove with a little water to cook, I notice how much else nonna has made for dinner.

She has already prepared chicory and roasted red peppers, the fish is in the oven and broccoli soup is bubbling away.

She tells me she is going to put ravioli in the soup.  I gasp. My father will have (another) heart attack. Ravioli, in the world of Romano Cammarano, does not go in broccoli soup. It will be a controversial move on nonna’s part.

But she likes “fantasia”- imagination –  in cooking. And she will do whatever the “fantasia” tells her.  It’s telling her to put the ravioli in the soup. I warn her about Romano.  She shrugs and puts the ravioli in the soup.

Later, predictably, Romano Cammarano turns his considerable Roman nose up at the dish. But nonna has been true to the “fantasia”. That is what is important here.

Nonna pours garlic over artichokes

Artichokes with garlic oil

The carciofi are cooked when a leaf comes clean out of it and you can easily scrap away the breadcrumby, artichokey goodness at the bottom of each leaf with your teeth.  You do this over and over, making a pile of discarded leaves on your plate, till you get to the payoff for all your hard work – the heart.

Some unscrupulous members of your family might try to steal the heart. This is an offence and should be dealt with severely.

Nonna tests artichokes

Carciofi cooked like this might be the last bastion of true wogginess.

I notice funny looks from my colleagues when I eat them at my desk, piling up the waste paper basket with artichoke leaves. I guess I will never work at BHP.

Also, when non-Italians eat at nonnas, they never touch the carciofi. Pasta, wild greens, eggplants, sausages, salami, prosciutto? Yes, please, no problem at all. But carciofi? No, thank you, I’m very full, and the thought of all that teeth scrapping and greasy fingers is just too, well, woggy  I guess…

This, however, is not a problem. It just means there’s more carciofi for me.

Pile of artichoke leaves

Nonna’s carciofi

  • 5 artichokes, hard leaves at the top trimmed and stalks cut off
  • 2 cups of breadcrumbs, more or less
  • A handful of parsley, chopped
  • A handful of Parmesan, grated
  • Salt and pepper
  • 3 cloves of garlic, sliced
  • Olive oil
  1. Mix together the breadcrumbs, parsley, Parmesan and salt and pepper.
  2. Open up the leaves of the artichokes with your hands and sprinkle the breadcrumb mixture over them, making sure you get plenty between the leaves. Place the artichokes in a snug pan with high sides.
  3. In the meantime, fry the garlic in a considerable amount of olive oil till it browned. Pour the garlic oil over the artichokes.
  4. Put the pan over medium heat and pour in enough water to come half-way up the sides of the artichokes, add a pinch of salt, and half cover with a lid.
  5. Cook until a leaf comes away easily from the artichoke. It should take about 45 minutes. Or less. Or more. Don’t let the water dry out – add more if you need it. And remove the lid to dry them out if there’s too much water.
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One Response to “Cooking with my nonna – carciofi”

  1. Milena - The Life Harvest June 1, 2015 at 8:04 pm #

    I just love this post! The way you have written it is perfect! I lost my nonna at a young age but I imagine myself cooking with her in this exact way if she were here. Food is so much about the memories & the shared enjoyment. I’m making carciofi ripieni tonight & will think of your heartfelt post & tribute to your nonna.

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