Especially during the summer, Jackie and I eat a lot of vegetable-based pasta dishes – as you may have noticed if you look at these posts from time to time. To a degree, they’re variations on a theme but with enough diversity to make them worth passing along as the produce in the farmers’ market changes from week to week. Each vegetable demands its own approach and its own set of ingredients and techniques, and making the best use of them is interesting and delicious.
Anyway, pasta with the vegetables of the moment is one of the best non-meat/fish dinners you can eat.
The other week young artichokes finally appeared in our nearby farmers’ market. Readers who live in Europe – or California for that matter – must be puzzled: No, I do not know why Italian markets are swirling with artichokes in February and March while we in New York have to wait for the hot weather.
In our house, artichoke hearts are often cooked with white wine, herbs, garlic, lemon and what not – sort of à la grecque – or used in paella-like rice dishes. And twice or three times a summer we’ll eat them with dried pasta. Last year’s version was Sicilian in origin (via Twitter); it featured the particular flavor of capers, and the trimmed artichokes had been sliced thin before cooking.
This year we wanted bigger pieces of artichoke – more to chew on – and, because we had some excellent cherry tomatoes, these would provide savoriness and moisture – as well as light acidity, but in a less distinctive way than capers.
I made the artichoke mixture a while in advance, taking care not to overcook the artichokes so they could be reheated while remaining firm-tender. I started with a medium onion (a juicy, sweet new-season one), diced, and a small clove of garlic, sliced, and sweated them in olive oil with salt and a little parsley. When they were tender, I added five (or was it six?) little artichokes, trimmed down to their hearts and tender inner leaves and quartered (quartering them yields bite-size pieces and makes it very easy to cut out any fuzz the artichokes may contain, though if you’re able to get truly young ones there may not be any: most of ours were fuzz-free).
(I’d prepared the artichokes earlier in the day and held them in the fridge submerged in water acidulated with lemon juice. I’d also blanched, skinned and quartered half a dozen cherry tomatoes, sprinkled them with salt and drizzled them with olive oil, and left them at room temperature to improve in flavor and texture.)
Along with the artichokes, I added a few leaves of fresh mint to the pan and a spoonful or two of water, then covered the pan and simmered over very low heat until the artichokes could be easily pierced with a thin-bladed paring knife – but were not completely tender. This took seven minutes; start checking after five. I set the pan aside, off the heat.
For pasta I used mezze maniche (see photo), whose broad, stubby size was a good match for the artichoke pieces; rigatoni would be a fine choice too, as would penne or ziti. Because there were lots of artichokes and because mezze maniche are large and bulky and thus take up more space in the bowl, I used only 150 grams (say, 6 ounces) total for the two of us.
When the pasta went into boiling salted water, I reheated the artichokes, added the tomatoes and cooked for a minute or so to warm the tomatoes and finish cooking the artichokes. I checked for seasoning and made sure there was a generous amount of liquid – juices from the initial cooking of the artichokes and from the tomatoes – then drained the pasta and stirred it into the artichoke mixture, adding enough of the pasta water to make sure that everything was nice and moist. Once I’d transferred it to a warmed serving bowl, I drizzled it with my best olive oil; I might have added more fresh mint, but it wasn’t needed – use your judgment on this.
This was a purer artichoke experience than last year’s. There were no sharp edges from capers; the sweet onion and sweet-tart tomatoes were entirely harmonious without being monotonous. Also, the larger pieces of artichoke made this a very different dish. It’s hard to know which Jackie and I preferred. I suppose we’ll need to make the 2016 version soon and compare the two.