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How to trim artichokes, Roman style

The idea is to remove everything inedible in the kitchen. You will be tempted to comment superciliously about the waste. Don’t. Just deal with it. Anyway, the Anglo-French tooth-scraping method leaves a big pile of garbage on the table. We don’t.
Once you learn the basic principles of artichoke trimming, you will develop your own variations on the technique with your own knives, quirks, etc. That is fine. I was terrified of artichokes for years and always bought them already trimmed (we’re so spoiled in Rome!) until I found myself in the kitchen of the ristorante Paris in Trastevere for a photo shoot for the Williams-Sonoma book on Rome I was writing. Signora Iole Cappellanti asked me and the members of the photographer’s entourage if we’d like to learn to trim artichokes. Yay! Finally somebody would teach me how to do it! Linda, at the Testaccio market, did it brilliantly (and still does), but she was too fast. So Iole hands us over to one of the cooks. I asked him if he was bravo like the signora. Yes, he said, but it took me a year. Despair! He was exaggerating, but it’s true it is not an intuitive process. What follows, the Maureen method, is my own take on what I learned that day adapted for my own quirks and limitations.
The method works with any kind of artichoke, but the fresher the artichoke, the easier it is to work with. For thorny varieties, use suitable protection for your hands. In Rome, our artichokes come with their stems on. If yours doesn’t have a stem, just ignore that part. Notice that at no point do I brutally cut across the top of the artichoke for that guillotined look.

1. Fill a large bowl with water and the juice of a lemon, preferably pesticide-free. Cut the squeezed lemon halves in half (so you four pieces) and keep handy. Set out a small paring knife and, if possible, also a small knife with a curved blade.

2. Take an artichoke and hold it in your left hand (if you are right-handed) like a microphone. Starting from the base of the artichoke, snap off and discard the tough, outer leaves one row at a time. We don’t want any bald spots. Just keep snapping and turning the artichoke so that you are removing the leaves evenly. You will know when to stop because artichokes are color-coded. The drab, dark green of the outer leaves will give way to shades of lighter green, purple, and yellow. When the color change becomes pronounced, stop snapping leaves. Rub the artichoke with the inside of one of the lemon rinds where you broke off the leaves. Ignore the stems for the moment. Especially while you’re still learning the technique, if you’re not sure where to stop pulling leaves, err on the side of taking off more, not less. You do not want to leave anything tough.

3. Now, assume the position. Hold the artichoke gently in your left hand still like a microphone. Your weight is evenly distributed on both feet. Your arms are relaxed. Take the curved knife in your right hand. Angle the blade about 45° to the work surface, and angle the artichoke and your right hand to form an inverted V. Maintain oblique angles at all times: no horizontals or verticals. Place your blade approximately on the line (which is fuzzy) where the yellow begins and press gently through the first leaf. You never want to cut deeper than one leaf at a time. So no digging or straining. If you find yourself straining, stop, relax, and start again. Yoga is good training for this.

4. You’re in position: knife and artichoke form an inverted V, with the knife at an oblique angle at the color line. You’ve made the first shallow cut by pressing the knife through one leaf. Now start turning the artichoke against the knife. The right hand stays perfectly still and the knife with it. The only thing that moves is the artichoke, guided by your left hand. As you turn the artichoke against the knife, pull it slightly downward so you are essentially spiraling from base to tip. Rub cut surfaces with lemon, and work fast so the artichoke doesn’t turn black.

5. Don’t worry about the choke at this point. Turn the artichoke over so the stem is on top. Cut off two or three inches of stem. Notice that the stem too is color-coded. Place the paring knife at the boundary between the green fibers and the white core, then use the knife to rip the fibers off. This is sort of fun. Don’t forget to keep rubbing with lemon.

6. Now do the detail work. At the base of the artichoke/top of the stem there will probably be some remaining dark, tough areas. Shave these off gently—no digging. Rub with lemon.

7. To remove the choke, there are various ways. The women in Roman markets are skilled at reaming out an inverted cone shape with a small knife. Myself, I take a serrated apple corer and ram it down its little throat. Don’t push beyond where it naturally stops or you’ll destroy the heart. Give it a twist and pull out a plug of hairy choke and prickly leaves.

8. Drop the artichoke into the bowl of acidulated water while you work on the next one. Alternatively, trim them all first, then do all the chokes at once. Your choice.

9. At this point you can prepare the artichokes further for whatever recipe you’re using, but that will be a story for another day.

© Maureen B. Fant
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