Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Villa Capri's Carciofi alla Giudia

I tend to stay home on New Year's Eve to avoid the crazies on the road. But this year my parents invited me to have an early dinner with them at a fairly new neighborhood restaurant, Villa Capri. I try not to ever turn them down so off I went. One of three Villa Capri restaurants (the other locations are in Carmel Valley and Poway, along with Come On In Cafe and Mediterraneo in Alpine ), this eatery is just down the street from my temple and the neighborhood itself has a pretty large Jewish population. So I wasn't really surprised to see a few Roman Jewish menu items listed. The one that most intrigued me was an appetizer called Carciofi all Giudia, or Roman Jewish-style Baby Artichokes.

We had to order them and when the server brought out a plate of three artichokes--larger than what I think of baby artichokes, with a long stem still attached--redolent of garlic, parsley, and basil, I was smitten. The artichokes seemed bathed in olive oil with a little crispiness at the fringes of the leaves. I wanted to know how to make them.

And, I have. Managing director Salvatore Ercolano invited me to the Carmel Valley restaurant for a lesson. He explained that this recipe and others on the menu derive from the old Jewish ghetto in Rome and his intent is to actually follow the lead at the restaurant of his former employers in New York, Lattanzi's, and develop a menu insert of strictly Roman Jewish dishes.

Because of the costs involved, the restaurant doesn't use fresh artichokes to make the dish, but orders precooked artichokes marinated in olive oil from Italy that are then prepared for the dish. But, it's easy enough to do this dish from scratch with fresh artichokes when they're in season. Look for medium-sized artichokes that haven't developed enough to have a fuzzy choke. Strip the dark, tough outer leaves until you hit the soft, lighter green leaves. Keep the stem intact. As you prep the artichokes add the finished ones to a large bowl of cold water with lemon juice to keep them from discoloring. Then you'll simmer them in a mixture of olive oil, water, and garlic until they're tender. At that point, you can strain them for the dish and save the liquid for sauteing later.

The other hiccup of sorts that I encountered is that Ercolano's instructions for making the dish were the opposite of what his chef Hilario Hernandez does. Ercolano told me to saute the artichokes first, then run the pan under the broiler for a few minutes to crispen. Hernandez actually puts them in a 500-degree convection oven for a few minutes, then pulls out the pan and settles it on the stovetop to crispen. It works fine either way. When the artichokes are done, remove them from the pan, add some chopped parsley and basil to the pan with slices of garlic and saute for a minute or two. Add them and some uncooked parsley and basil to garnish. That's it.

Carciofi alla Giudia
from Villa Capri
(printable recipe)

10 servings based on 3 artichokes per serving

To prepare artichokes:

30 baby artichokes, intact
Bowl of water and juice of one lemon
Half gallon olive oil (extra virgin oil isn't necessary)
10 ounces water (optional so you don't have to use so much oil)
12 cloves garlic

To prepare each serving:
3 prepped artichokes
1 clove garlic, sliced
garlic-infused olive oil from the prep
1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
1/4 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Strip off tough artichoke leaves until you reach the tender, light green leaves. Place cleaned artichokes in lemon water.
2. Bring olive oil, water, and garlic cloves to a boil. Add the artichokes and simmer until tender.
3. Remove artichokes strain, and keep the liquid.
4. Pre-heat the oven to broil. Heat an oven-ready skillet and add olive oil mix to the pan with sliced garlic and salt and pepper. Spread the leaves of each of three artichokes to look like a blooming flower and place on the pan.

Saute for a few minutes, then put the skillet under the broiler for four to five minutes to crispen.

5. Remove skillet from the oven and remove the artichokes to a plate. Add a small handful of herbs and briefly saute with the garlic. Then add to the artichokes on the plate. Garnish with more hers and serve.

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