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Saturday, May 9, 2009

Carciofi al Cartoccio

(Artichokes Grilled in Foil)

Chiko and I just celebrated 10 years of marital bliss with a 10 day trip to Italy! As usual, we went to the apartment, which we rent in the lakeside town of Peschiera del Garda near Verona. Being the first week of May, the farmers' markets were teaming with great produce including white asparagus and beautiful artichokes.

Thanks to my cousin, the intrepid Dan Diego de La Jolla, the apartment has recently been upgraded with this beautiful Weber kettle grill.

This highly prized piece of American cooking technology is nearly impossible to find in Europe, so it was smuggled in by the infamous Winters clan, through a complex system of blind drops and ratlines and involved stops in several former soviet republics. Now that it is safely on the shores of beautiful Lago di Garda, we put it to work grilling copious amounts of vegetables and fish.

One of the highlights was the Carciofi al Cartoccio. Honestly, I thought this up on my own, but in subsequent research found that other people have been using this method as well.

In southern Italy, it is a popular practice to throw whole artichokes directly on the embers of a wood fire and cook them until the tough outer leaves are completely burned. They are then removed from the fire and peeled, revealing the artichoke hearts which have been steamed in their own juices and imparted with a smokey flavor. Personally, I'm not quite brave enough to try this recipe for fear of burning the delicate stems, which for me are the best part. Thinking back to my boy scout days when we baked potatoes in foil in the ashes of our campfire, I decided to wrap the artichokes in foil to give them a little protection from the fire.

I started out with a handful of lovely artichokes, fresh from the market with their beautiful long stems in tact. Next I prepared a large non-reactive bowl filled with copiously acidulated water (for those who don't speak Batali that means there was a bunch of lemon juice in it to stop the artichokes from turning brown).

I pulled off the tough outer leaves.

Trimmed the base.

Peeled the stem.

Cut the top off.

Removed the choke.

Got the last of those little hairy buggers with a teaspoon and placed it in the lemon water while I proceeded with the rtest of the artichokes.

Seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper.

Wrapped tightly in foil.

Placed them around the perimeter of the coals in the bottom of the grill and replaced the cooking grate.

I proceeded to cook the rest of the dinner. For the Primi, we went to the fresh pasta shop in Peschiera and got Caponsei, a sort of gnocchi made with bread crumbs instead of potato. It is a very particular dish from the nearby region of Mantova. They are light as air and I would love to make them at home, but so far I have only found recipes for this pasta written in Italian. One of these days I will have to translate one into English and feature it in another post. For the Secondi, I grilled a combination of calamari, local lake trout and sea bass from the nearby Adriatic, occasionally lifting the grate and turning the foil wrapped artichokes. When the fish were ready, I removed the artichokes from the coals, unwrapped them and dressed with more olive oil and a squeeze of lemon juice. The total cooking time for the artichokes was about 45 minutes, on a medium grill (temperature at the lid was about 350-400.

P.S. Last night I made the artichokes again, but this time on my gas grill. I placed the foil pouches on the cooking grate over direct heat. They cooked much quicker this way (maybe 20 minutes total time). You have to turn them more frequently to keep them from burning, but they still came out delicious.