Living in Italy over the winter months is a wonderful eye opener for people who like to cook seasonally. I love being in a country where seasonal produce is abundant, in-your-face and cheap. Don’t get me wrong Australia has all the same foods, however, you also have a regular stock of summer, spring and autumn produce that can at times be cheaper than the in season fruit and veg and that can be really annoying.
The vegetable I am thinking of when living in Italy in the winter months is carciofi (artichokes). They are everywhere you look bundled up in bunches of 4-5 for 2 euro a bunch…I cannot remember buying them that cheap in Sydney in winter or am I wrong Sydneysiders? Have I forgotten?
I love eating artichokes and this month I have loved experimenting with them in the kitchen (when they are this cheap you don’t mind making the odd mistake, it’s when they’re 2 euro each that you start to treat them like gold!). I had a couple of carciofi left over from a previous meal and they had been in the fridge for longer than I thought was a good idea. Fortunately, they were super fresh when I bought them so the extra few days in my fridge (instead of on the back of a truck being transported from one end of the country to another) didn’t seem to matter.
I was in the mood for a risotto and I’d had a craving for anchovies too, however, when I suggested to the boys we have an artichoke, anchovy and pecorino risotto for dinner I got more than a few curled lips and ‘Oh come on mum, that doesn’t sound good at all!’. To be fair, if I told Alex I was making a chicken risotto with beans and candied bacon he would of asked for all the toppings without the rice because he hates the texture! I don’t get it. Anyway I wanted to try it out, Nic was excited so I pulled a couple pieces of lasagne from the freezer that I’d made the week before and decided I’d reheat a meal for them and cook a delicious one for us. Everyone was happy.
Once the carciofi are stripped down to the tender leaves and the stem is lightly peeled leave them in cold water with half a lemon squeezed into the water to stop the carciofi turning a dirty brown colour. After the onion is chopped finely and the garlic thinly sliced, saute the onion with butter (not very Tuscan but very yummy and risotto isn’t Tuscan anyway) on a low heat until transparent.
Whack the temp up to medium and then add chopped carciofi, garlic, a good pinch of salt and two roughly chopped white anchovies for added richness (of course not necessary if you hate anchovies!). The smells are wonderfully sweet and savoury you could just eat it as is.
After the carciofi has been coated in the buttery onion, garlic and anchovy flavours add risotto rice and stir to heat up the rice while the vegetable stock is simmering on the stove top (approx 2 min).
It is important to warm the rice before you add the stock because once the addition of liquid happens the rice activates immediately and the cooking process begins- warm rice, hot stock equals a perfect start to cooking a great risotto. Now there are a million different opinions on how to cook risotto and I am not here to tell you this is the only way to do it. I am not one to stand over the risotto pan and stir and stir until my arm is about to fall off. The approach I take is more for the cook who has to do more than three things at once: add a generous amount of stock to the rice, stir to stop the rice sticking on the bottom of the pan, make sure it is on a steady boil (though not going crazy) and then walk away to do something else. Stir occasionally in the beginning yet keep an eye on it so it doesn’t run low on stock. Taste the rice grain for ‘bite’ and then top up the liquid as needed. Once your happy with the bite of the rice (meaning it is cooked to your liking), stir a few times then take it off the heat and add very generous amounts of grated cheese, in this case I used a local pecorino (An aged pecorino has a much sharper taste which pairs beautifully with the fresh flavour of carciofi, parmesan is also lovely, however, it has more of a creamy flavour).
A lot of tasting gets done at this point; fold in the cheese, add some fresh thyme, check the seasoning, maybe add a little more cheese (can never have to much) and then serve.
I loved the flavours in this dish and the texture of fresh carciofi is a million times better than anything you get in a can, so if you see a bunch of carciofi at your fruit and veggie shop this winter and you have never bought it before, take the plunge. Buy it and make a delicious, heart-warming risotto, it’s really not as hard as you think.
Note: I hate that the photos are not bright and full of colour, however, I photograph at the time I need the dish and evening light really isn’t the best for food photography, I apologise.