There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.
Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.
You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.
Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.
My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.
Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.
Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.
For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.
Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!