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I don't think Jews get enough credit for being expert fryers. Here in the States, Jewish cuisine is most famous for Ashkenazi dishes like chopped liver, matzo balls, and geflite fish, but there's a whole world beyond that, and some of the best of it is fried.
The most obvious examples might be the fried foods of Hanukkah, like potato latkes, which symbolize the story of a very short supply of oil burning for a full eight days. But dig a little deeper and there's so much more. For instance, did you know that fish and chips was likely introduced to the UK by Sephardic Jews moving from the Iberian peninsula, where fried fish had been a Sabbath staple?
Perhaps the most remarkable fried Jewish foods, though, belong to Italy, and Rome specifically, where the tradition of frying blossomed in the ghetto where Roman Jews were confined from the 16th through 19th centuries.* They fried all sorts of things, from fish and meats to fruits and vegetables. It's within this tradition that carciofi alla giudia, Roman-Jewish fried artichokes, were born.
*Little-known related fact: Most of the vendors selling Catholic tchotchkes around the Vatican are (and pretty much always have been) Roman Jews.
In Rome, they use a variety of artichokes called cimaroli that is free from thorns and the hairy central choke, which means you can trim them, cook them, and eat them without worrying about the choke. If you can't find that variety, you have a couple of options. You can use baby artichokes, which I've done in the photos here. They're small enough that the choke isn't an issue. Or you can use full-size artichokes, but you'll have to remove the choke before serving. Since carciofi all giudia involves a two-step process—cooked first in lower temperature oil until tender and then a second time on higher heat to crisp them up—I find that it's easiest to remove the choke after the first frying, when the artichokes are tender but not yet crispy.
Whether you use baby artichokes or large ones, the trimming method for Roman-Jewish fried artichokes is the same (aside from the choke-removal part), which I've documented with step-by-step photos in my artichoke prep guide: Pull off the tough outer leaves until you've exposed the lighter-colored inner ones, then use a paring knife to slice off the top portions of all the remaining leaves, and trim the stem with a paring knife or peeler. The result will be more closely trimmed than an artichoke destined for steaming, but less trimmed than if you were preparing just the hearts. It should look something like a closed rosebud.
To cook the artichokes, start by lowering them gently into oil that's heated to about 280°F. The exact temperature isn't super critical—it just needs to be hot enough to cook them but not so hot that they're rapidly frying (otherwise, you risk burning the outsides before the insides are done). Look for a steady but non-violent stream of bubbles rising out of the artichokes. This should take about 10 minutes for baby artichokes and 15 minutes for larger ones.
Larger artichokes don't have to be fully submerged in the oil, but you'll need to turn them every minute or so to cook them evenly.
I've tested this recipe in neutral canola oil and the more traditional extra-virgin olive oil. Olive oil gives the artichokes a stronger flavor, whereas canola oil allows the pure flavor of the artichoke to shine through. I like both, though I lean towards using olive oil since it delivers that essential Mediterranean flavor. (Some folks question the health or flavor aspects of frying in olive oil. After much research and testing, I don't worry about it, and you can read all about why right here.)
You'll know the artichokes are done with their first round of cooking when you can pierce them easily with a fork.
I transfer them to paper towels to drain and cool.
When they're cool enough to handle, I gently pry open the leaves to create the look of a blooming flower—the signature appearance of Roman-Jewish fried artichokes. This is when it's easiest to remove the choke on large artichokes, using a spoon to scrape it out.
I bring the oil up to 350°F and drop the "bloomed" artichokes back in. Now they'll fry quickly, browning and crisping. When they look good (only a matter of a minute or two), take them out and put them on fresh paper towels to drain again.
With fried foods, it's always good to season with salt while still hot so that it adheres well.
Put a lemon wedge or two on the side, and then send some thanks to the resourceful Jews who managed to create some pretty delicious food in an otherwise harsh living situation.
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