Spring vegetables arrive shockingly early in Rome to the eyes of this American. As the availability of puntarelle has waned, artichokes have burst onto the scene as the first harbingers of primavera.
Nobody celebrates the artichoke like Romans, and at the produce market, artichokes harvested from the countryside surrounding Rome are always the first choice of shoppers; they are a specific variety that thrives in the volcanic soil from the valleys surrounding Monte Cimino, Lake Bracciano, and Lake Vico.
Huge, purple-green globes have taken over the town, piled high in the open-air markets and artfully arranged at the entrance of Roman restaurants and trattorie. A bouquet of artichokes in the window means there may be carciofi alla guidea (crisp and deep-fried), alla Romana (braised in olive oil, with red onion, garlic and fresh mint), or any number of other artichoke delights on the menu tonight.
The memory of a recent plate of tagliatelle at my local "trat" has been haunting me, served with artichokes, lemon, and red pepper flakes bathed in fruity olive oil. As with most Italian food, the perfection was found in the balance and interplay of the flavors and textures: al dente pasta and tender artichokes with the brightness of lemon and an occasional zing from just a touch of peperoncino.
I decided to re-create it at home with my first artichoke purchase of 2008. Instead of seasoning the dish with sliced garlic as they did at my trattoria, I used a tender, young leek that also caught my eye at the market.
There's a lot of good information on the web on how to clean an artichoke; the most important step is to have a bowl of water with lemon juice ready; all of the prepped artichoke should go in the acidulated water immediately after cutting to prevent it from discoloring.
A light grating of pecorino Romano finishes this dish off perfectly.
Tagliatelle with Artichokes, Leeks and Lemon
- 2 medium lemons
- 4 fresh artichokes
- 1 medium leek
- Extra-virgin olive oil
- Several pinches of kosher salt to taste
- Several peperoncini, or crushed red pepper flakes to taste
- 12 ounces fresh tagliatelle or fettucine
- Pecorino Romano for grating
Fill a large bowl with 1 quart cold water; squeeze the juice from one of the lemons into the bowl, and toss the two lemon halves in.
With a sharp knife, trim the artichokes down to the heart and tender leaves, and cut the center into eighths; add them to the bowl of water. Peel about 2 inches of the artichoke stems, slice them lengthwise, and add them to the bowl. Thinly slice the leek, rinsing it well to wash away any sand and dirt.
Heat about 1/2 cup of extra-virgin olive oil in a large, deep sauté pan; add the drained, sliced artichoke hearts and stems, keeping them moving in the pan and adjusting the heat to prevent them from browning. After a few minutes, add the sliced leek, and season everything with a pinch of salt. Continue to sauté the vegetables over medium heat until the leeks are soft and almost translucent, then add the lemon zest and juice, a few crumbled peperoncini or crushed red pepper flakes to taste, and 2 or 3 tablespoons of the hot pasta water. Cover the sauté pan, and steam the artichokes tender.
Bring the pot of pasta water to a rolling boil. When the artichokes are tender and the leeks are translucent, add the fresh pasta to the boiling water, and cook until it is al dente, which should take 1 to 2 minutes, depending on the thickness. When the pasta is cooked, add it to the simmering pan of artichokes with a splash of the pasta water and a few more tablespoons of olive oil. Toss everything over the heat for 30 seconds to bind the sauce with the pasta before plating. Serve with a grating of Pecorino Romano.