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Cooking Off the Cuff: Artichokes and Pasta - From Sicily via Twitter

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Like almost all my little friends on Twitter, or so it seemed, the food and wine writer Fiona Beckett was traveling in Sicily this summer. Which doesn't make me envious in the least. Nope. Not me. The other week she posted about a dish of pasta with zucchini (courgettes), capers and mint she'd eaten there. The photograph didn't glow with what we think of as summer colors: no bright red tomatoes or bright green basil, just pale summer squash and its dark skin, the muted green of capers and the wheaten color of gemelli (or whatever the pasta was). Even the mint, having been warmed through, had little visual brightness.

But how good this dish must have been, and how profoundly Sicilian - or at least southern Italian, with the vegetable cooked to softness in lots of olive oil and perked up with scattered jolts of salt-cured capers (perhaps from the Sicilian island of Pantelleria, whose capers are particularly well regarded).

And that answered the perennial question of what Jackie and I would eat the next night. Except it didn't, quite, because five little violet artichokes remained from the previous evening's paella-type dinner, and it struck me that these, thinly sliced, would make a dish similar in spirit to the one Fiona had photographed and no less typical of the region. And it would be cooked in just the same way - at least according to my interpretation of the photo - so you can make it with zucchini sliced a generous 1/8 inch (3.5 mm) thick, which will mean you don't have to find and trim tiny artichokes.

I'd already trimmed and halved the artichokes, and they were in the fridge in a bath of water acidulated with lemon juice (whatever anybody else may tell you, they'll hold that way for at least 24 hours, and probably longer). I laid each one on the board cut side down and sliced it very thin, cutting the long way, not across. Over medium-low heat, I stewed them in two tablespoons (30 ml) good olive oil with salt and a few whole fresh mint leaves just to give the mint flavor a head start. No liquid was needed at first because they were still wet from their soaking water, but as they cooked I gave them a drizzle of water to keep them from starting to fry in the oil.

Why not wine? Well, if I'd been cooking these as a standalone dish of artichokes - for an antipasto selection, a bruschetta topping or a side dish - that's just what I would have used, and would probably have finished them with a squeeze of lemon juice too. But the point of this kind of cooking is to keep the flavors as few and as pure as possible: I also resisted the temptation to use stock.

When the artichoke slices were tender - which took about five minutes, but keep checking (it will take less time if you use zucchini/courgettes) - I stirred in a good tablespoonful of capers, chopped, and a handful of mint leaves, slivered. These capers were salt-packed, not bottled in vinegar; they needed a brief rinse to remove surface salt before being blotted dry and chopped. I also removed the whole mint leaves that had been stewing with the artichokes.

While the artichokes were cooking, I'd brought a big pot of generously salted water to the boil, and when they were just about done I added two portions (200 g) of thick spaghetti. When it was ready, I drained it (not too thoroughly) and added it to the artichoke pan, reserving some of the starchy, salty cooking water. Over low heat, I used tongs to combine the pasta with the artichokes, adding some of that hot water to attain a well lubricated consistency. In the warmed serving bowl, I finished the dish with a tablespoonful of olive oil, for flavor. Although the model for this dish was showered with grated pecorino, you won't want any cheese on the artichoke variant (I experimented), but you might like to try a grind of black pepper or some more oil on your portion.

Because I fought the impulse to complicate, our dinner could almost have been eaten on a terrace overlooking an olive grove. The view from our Manhattan apartment wasn't quite the same, of course, but you won't catch me complaining about not being in Sicily. Not me.

Artichokes and Pasta From Sicily via Twitter