Favourites and more frying

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Artichokes encapsulate in their tight buds, the divergence of British and Sicilian food.  Here they are seldom seen, priced as a luxury but rarely treated with respect.  We are charged a fortune for an unopened flower, all too often a bashed and wilted version of its youthful self.  There’s a terribly chi chi store in Mayfair that likes to arrange them in vases, for which conceit you can add on an extra three quid.  And then when it comes to the cooking them, we seem to be impossibly wedded to boiling and effeteness, painstakingly dipping individual petals in hollandaise, until the precious heart has gone cold and clammy.

In Sicily, (and throughout Italy) on the other hand, they are ubiquitous from new year to easter (their season is earlier than our’s).  They are abundant and cheap, the markets pile them high and you buy carrier bags full of them for a few euros.  And there are different varieties and sizes; small elongated purple ones for braising, choke free varieties, swollen steel grey green spheres.  There is even a festival dedicated to artichokes in the village of Cerda, east of Palermo.  They are a delight of spring and central to the food of Easter festivities.

They are my favourite vegetable, unequivocally.  Even asparagus or freshly podded peas can’t compete.  Sweet and minerally, they also create a physical tingle on the tongue – almost as though temporarily anaesthetising it.  But equally, many people remain unimpressed.  The leaf tearing mundanity never compensated for by the merest mention of flesh from their bases, and then the itching powder nastiness of the choke that has to be dealt with before that stone cold heart.  This is why other recipes might convert, ones that don’t demand such investment of time for relatively little reward (if you don’t love artichokes as I do).

Unless you have the luck and finances to be able to shop at Borough Market, the only way most of us in Britain can guarantee enough artichokes to allow culinary frivolity is to grow our own.  As plants they can be ferociously temperamental weaklings, or verdant to the point of being rampantly intimidating.  When young, they can be mown down by slugs, drained of life by blackly and succumb to trench foot in a cold and damp winter.  But, established clumps are an impressive thing, up to two metres of silvered, scrolling serrated leaves, topped with spiky, prehistoric flower buds, that, unpicked, explode into an imperial purple inflorescence of bee magnet. 

My experience has mostly been of the weaklings.  I have struggled to get them growing on the allotment.  It is exposed high on the side of a valley, and few make it through the winter.  I think the problem has been that I’ve been relying on bought, seed-raised plants.  Which I have discovered, are unreliable and widely variable in vigour and hardiness.  So, the best plan of action is to seek out a friendly fellow enthusiast who has a clump that has proven its worth in both longevity and productivity, and in the spring (March and April), take a cutting of the shoots that appear around the sides of the clump, leaf and root together.  These small clones will still need some love and devotion in their first year.  But good genes should kick in, and if raised in a fertile, sunny, well drained spot, kept free of strangling weeds, and protected with a winter mulch from the worst of the wet and cold, begin to reward in a couple of years with a reliable bounty of loveliness.

Back to the eating of them then.  This is a simple Roman, not Sicilian recipe.  It involves deep frying, which as you know I am very fond of, and salt (ditto).  The name is supposed to come from the time when Rome’s Jewish community was confined to a limited area of the city, and with space at a premium, fried their food on stoves. Artichokes were disdained by their Catholic neighbours, and so the dish, and its cooks conjoined. All a bit tenuous I know, but I’m sure there’s a kernel of truth in there somewhere.

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Carciofi alla guidia (Jewish artichokes)

Fill a fryer, or large, deep saucepan with oil 5-6cm deep and heat.  Olive is expensive, and this requires a profligate amount, so unless you’re determined to be authentic, a milder vegetable oil will be just fine, but make sure it’s clean, as old, well used oil can make the food taste bitter and burnt.

  

At this stage, you don’t want chip pan hot, so keep it on a low to medium heat.

Ideally, you want a variety of artichoke that is not spiny, and if all you have are very large and tough ones, they may need steaming beforehand, for maybe 10-15 minutes.

Leave the stem on your artichokes that they come with, taking off just a few millimetres at the base if they’re very dry.  You can also peel very large and stringy stems, just to make them a little more edible.  Trim off the very toughest outer petals and If they’re very prickly, take a sturdy knife and trim the tops off.  

Take your artichokes slide them into the oil.  If you get a ferocious and explosive sizzle, it’s too hot, so turn down the heat. The artichokes need to cook gently, poach almost, in their bath .  A steady stream of small bubbles is the desired effect, rather than Yellowstone hot spring.  This slow process penetrates through to the heart of the artichoke ensuring it’s cooked throughout.

After ten-fifteen minutes, remove them and let them cool and drain on kitchen paper.

No it’s chip shop time.  Turn the heat up under the oil and open all the windows.

Take your cooled artichokes and splay the petals out to open up the flower.  If they contain an inedible choke, remove that now.  Turn them upside down, and press them down to flatten them out.

Wipe all the oil off your greasy hands, and generously season the splayed out bloom with salt, getting into all the nooks and crannies.

When the oil is hot enough (I have an old fashioned jam thermometer that handily has “Deep Fry” marked on it, return your artichokes to their doom.

This will only take a few minutes, between three and five.

The hotter, faster oil takes the cooked artichokes and turns them to a crisp thing that you can eat in its entirety, no faffing around breaking off individual petals, no overflowing bowls of detritus.  If you’re able to find, or grow them, I urge and implore you to try cooking them this way.

Frying Tonight!

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Why would you cook street food at home?

I don’t mean the street food of a thousand dank food festivals; waffles covered in artery clogging cream and salted caramel, or the piece of meat so pulled that it is all but impossible to answer ‘animal, vegetable or mineral?’  I mean the stuff that world over, has been created to be eaten on the hoof, as a ready meal to take to work, and above all, to be cooked in the open air, or at the very least, in a non-domestic setting.  Remember the childhood stigma suffered by the kid that lived above the chippy?  Street food is pungent and clingy.

Homesickness and loss are two reasons to cook it at home, because ‘real’ street food is inherently bound to its place of origin, it can both define and be defined by this.  It is the taste of childhood, normality, home. It reeks of identity.  More pragmatically though, you need open windows, a stiff through breeze,  and the extractor fan to be working at full pelt, without those three preconditions being met, then there is no reason good enough to justify breaking out the deep fat fryer to make Arancine, no matter how wistful your Sicilian other half has become.

Arancine (female) if you’re from Palermo, arancini (male) if you’re from Catania.  And it’s ‘arancheeneh’, NOT ‘arancheeneee’, which I still say every time, to the exasperation of the resident Sicilian and the amusement of my more tolerant Italian teacher (although her patience runs out over my inability to roll my ‘r’s).  For me, the feminine ‘Arancine’ seems right, as they’re supposed to look like oranges (Arance), hence, little oranges (arancine).  Forgive the Italian 101.  This seems to me like common sense, and I’m loyal to my Palermitan.

These are piping hot balls of deep fried rice, surrounding a parcel of (traditionally) either ragù, with peas, or mozzarella and ham.  Dainty, they are not.  The rice has a familiar taste, incongruously rice pudding like (perhaps this is why so many British friends wrinkle their noses at the mention of arancine).  There’s a cafe/bar attached to the Teatro Biondo in Palermo, just round the corner from the tourist hot spot of Quattro Canti. There, you can buy arancine the size of baby’s head, for breakfast.  They sit alongside an alternate riotous excess of cannoli, Genovasi, brioche, countless fruit tarts, marzipan fruits, gelato, more gelato. That Sicilians are not all the size of a house, is astounding.

But the best I have so far eaten was in a tiny backstreet place in Taormina, the cliche of an Italian hill town, with added Etna and Grecian ampitheatre.  Its east coast position places it firmly in the Catania school when it comes to the name, and therefore, you buy ‘Arancini’.  These were through the monumental arch, past the church, past the tourists and past all the street sellers of belts, whirling fluorescent toys, and hair braids.  You had to duck past a fancier restaurant where Americans were sipping monstrously expensive Spritz from branded balloon glasses.  I loved Taormina, I loved all its overt tourist fleecing brashness.  I loved that the Duomo has a black Madonna, painted by God Himself, and wrapped in millennia of silver.  And then, these arancini.

 

The bar is basic, and busy, it reminded me of the chip shop round the corner at home, where queues form early and, in a flight of true Brummie romanticism, are longest on Valentine’s Day.  Similarly, at the cafe in Taormina you queue and you wait under a glaring fluorescent light; there’s a chest high glass display cabinet, which also acts as the counter where you place your order.  I half remember that in there were other offerings, (although none as grand as those in the theatre cafe in Palermo).  But we were here for our little oranges, recommended as the best by Marco, the friend who we were staying with down the hill in less glitzy, less rapacious Naxos.

These arancini need to be assembled and fried to order; the sticky, cold risotto rice, stained gold by saffron, is moulded into a palm shaped cup to hold the filling (we had one ragù and one mozzarella).  Then the rice is formed over to encase its hidden depths.  And this being the east coast, the shape is that of a rounded cone, rather than the sphere of Palermo.  Finally, your dinner is dipped in egg yolk, rolled in breadcrumbs and deep fried in olive oil until the colour of toasted coconut tobacco (I’m showing my age).

The whole thing only takes ten minutes, so you grab a stool in the alley outside, awaiting your turn, with a beer.  Mostly Italians, or rather, mostly Sicilians, are at the few other tables and stools, or sitting on steps and in doorways.  There’s a homeless guy with his hopeful dog in tow.  They’re looking for the rare tourists who’ve gone off-Baedekar and stumbled down here to bite off more than they can chew. Or, more realistically, for the more charitable locals who know them by name and will perhaps buy them both an arancino and him a beer.  This is in no way an idyll, but it is more human and humane than the coach tour feel of the main streets.  The smell is of hot oil and humidity, there are discarded Styrofoam cartons and empty plastic tumblers of dying froth, waiting to be cleared by an overworked, although largely absent teenager.  The street is wet, but it hasn’t rained in weeks.

With your fingers you break open your ball of scalding, sticky rice to an eruption of musty saffron; the filling is viscous and dangerous, but even in the dark, suffocating, summer evening heat of Sicily, the whole thing demands urgent attention. The suddenly discovered ragù, simmered and honed for hours, smacks you in the face.  It is outrageously confident, shouting ‘I am meat! I am peas! I am sauce!  Eat me!’  In contrast the mozzarella version is, if not more demur, then more subtle, sinful in its richness, smokily infused by the ham – the Fenella Fielding of arancini.  Cold beer in hand to sooth a burnt mouth, inadequate, Lilliputian napkins half catching the leaking oil and oozing cheese, these are a thing to be eaten greedily and shamelessly.  There is gluttony here. This is street food.

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