Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Two Greedy Italians Eat Italy and the revenge of the hairy artichokes (review)

Some women prefer to peruse The Fifty Shades of Dull before their bedtime, some choose a heavy volume of the old classic, hoping to fall asleep after a couple of pages. I enjoy reading my cook books in bed. Fascinating, inspiring and more thrilling than any tale of bondage.

If you are a fan of Antonio Carluccio and Gennaro Contaldo, you must have followed their TV adventures across Italy earlier this year on BBC.
I know I have more cook books than I really need, but couldn't resist the temptation of buying the book that accompanied the TV series (I actually bought it from The Book People, but it's available from all the major online book shops).

The book is a beautiful edition: photography by David Loftus is simply stunning, he is a true poet. The visual artistry of his style is unique. Each image of an Italian dish, be it a warm mini chocolate pudding or a tray of sea bass cooked with the citrus fruit is an ode to the Italian cooking and its two maestri.
The food styling is inspirational. I love the sight of the old scratched tables, old tablecloths with the frayed lace, used cutlery, peeled paint. Don't expect any "perfect" modern tabletops or the latest gadgets in the photos, it is all about traditions and the continuity.

Like its predecessor, Two Greedy Italians, this volume explores the regional differences of the country's cuisine. Being married to an Italian, I can only confirm that the food in Italy is very regional. When we visit my in-laws in Ferrara, we eat a lot of the local dishes that are characteristic of the Ferrarese cuisine like pasticcio di maccheroni or cappelletti in brodo. Travelling down south to Viareggio or north to Turin to see the extended family, we encounter totally different dishes and styles of cooking.

This book is about the geography defining the regional styles of cuisine and culinary tastes. It is divided into the topographical chapters: from the mountains and valleys you travel to the coastlines, proceed to the plains and rivers.

The selection of recipes is varied: from well known Italian dishes that define the culinary treasures of Italy to the less known regional varieties. The style of writing is a reflection of the personalities of the chefs: their passion for food is shining through each page. I love all the photos of them cooking and enjoying every mouthful, you can see the pleasure and enthusiasm in their eyes, you cannot fake it, it is sincere and catching.

Before doing a review, I got in touch with Quadrille Publishing, asking for their permission to reproduce one of the recipes on my blog.

I have chosen to cook Filled Globe Artichokes with Potatoes (Carciofi Ripieni con Patate). I received my Abel & Cole veg box with two artichokes, and fancied something different. This was the first time I have actually cooked the artichokes. I usually buy them in jars in oil to add to pasta or salads, so this was an experiment.

4 large globe artichokes
salt and freshly ground black pepper
a handful of parsley, roughly chopped
4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
8 anchovy fillets
24 cherry tomatoes, quartered
4 tsp capers
8 green olives, pitted and sliced
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
4 large potatoes
1.5 litres vegetable stock

I don't often swear in the kitchen, while cooking, but not this time.
It seemed very straighforward, when I was reading the book.

First prepare the artichokes. Remove the outer leaves and cut off the stalk. Trim the base slightly so the bottom is flat and the artichoke can stand upright. So far, so good.
With your fingers, gently open out the artichoke until you can see the hairy choke. Mind you, they are really prickly, those leaves. After all, artichokes are from the thistle family.
With a small scoop or teaspoon, remove and discard the choke. Ha, that's where I started to swear. The teaspoon refused to co-operate, I had to use my fingers to get rid of the hairy bits. My, will they ever end? My fingernails looked horrible, and I am usually not fussy about the beauty of my fingernails. They also stayed black for a couple of days, no matter how many times I washed them with the soap. That was a struggle to clean the artichokes.
Season the artichoke cavities with salt and pepper and fill each with: some parsley, 1 sliced garlic clove, 2 anchovies, 6 tomatoes, 1 tsp of capers and 2 olives. Gently press the ingredients in.

Place the filled artichokes in a large saucepan. Pour one tablespoon of oil into each artichoke and cover with any remaining parsley. Place the potatoes in between the gaps (this sentence made me pause, a gap in the leaves? In the end I decided they meant the gap between the artichokes in the pan).

Bring to the boil, reduce the heat, cover with the lid and simmer for 1 hour or until the artichokes are tender, test by pulling out a central leaf, if it comes easily, they are done.

Carefully lift out the artichokes with a large slotted spoon and place on individual serving plates. Gently open them up, pour over a little of the stock and serve with the potatoes and lots of good bread to dip into the sauce.

I haven'd added the anchovies to the dish, as my Mum doesn't like them, and since I had only 2 artichokes, I halved all the ingredients. I used lots of parsley plus added some dried oregano and mixed herbs. The stock was very tasty. The artichokes themselves were fiddly to eat, but that is the thing about them. Potatoes have absorbed all the flavours from the stock.

I have chosen this book for the Tots100 Summer Reading Challenge because this is not just a book of recipes. It is written beautifully, with lots of little anecdotes and personal references. You will find out what Carluccio's mother used to say, or what Contaldo thinks about the Italian style of parenting.

Move aside, Mr Grey, there is nothing more sexy than a plate of Sardinian pasta with mussels or a warm focaccia di formaggio. This book is half-recipes, half-memoirs and tales about Italy, its traditions and of course, mammas feature a lot, mammas, those keepers of the "one thing that unites all Italians: food, glorious food" (according to Carluccio).

If you liked this review, you might like to read

Around the World in 80 Dishes (review)
Inspiring Palettes from The Icecreamists (review)


  1. I'm with you there, nothing like a well written cook book. I also agree about the fiddlyness of artichokes, not sure they are worth the hassle!

  2. I'm with your mother - leave out the anchovies and I'll be over to join you in a flash. Good review. I'd love to go to Italy, I've never been. But everyone tells me it's actually really hard to find vegetarian food - pizza notwithstanding!

  3. If you eat fish, you'll be fine, and of course, there are so many pasta dishes that do not include meat.
    Personally I love a bit of anchovies, and try to sneak them in the sauce when possible. :)

  4. Good idea never know what to do with artichokes