When we went to Italy last year, half the fun was researching what food we could expect to discover, and one ingredient that quickly rose to the top of the list was artichokes. They were everywhere, especially in Rome, where they distinguished Jewish style as opposed to, I guess, Roman style. It made no difference, it was all tasty. This time of the year, being the height of artichoke season, here in California (previous post on Castroville, and California artichokes), where you can get a trio of beautiful artichokes for a $1, I thought it was time I break out those tasty recipes I tried.
The Jewish Ghetto of Rome
First a bit about the name ghetto, which for many has a bad connotation. A ghetto is historically a part of the city where minority groups cluster together, be it by social, economic or perhaps legal pressure. The term ghetto was first used in Venice to describe an area where Jews were compelled to live. The word comes from“gheto” or “ghet” which means slag in Venetian and refers to the a foundry where slag was stored on the island of that original Jewish settlement. The second part of the workd stems from borghetto, a diminutive of borgo “borough”. The word took on a new and sinister meaning when the Germans adopted the word to refer to confinement of Jews prior to the transportation to concentration camps during the holocaust.
Before the birth of Christ, there were Jews in Rome, so that’s 2,000 years of a presence in this ancient city, having arrived here after the Romans invaded Judea in 63 BC. Their numbers gradually increased as Jewish merchants came to trade and ended up settling; many from Sicily and Sardinia. When Ferdinand of Spain expelled them from these regions in 1492 they headed north and took with them their foods and cultures influenced by foreign settlers such as the Arabs, Normans, Aragonese. Many dishes labeled “alla giudia” are not of Roman origins but rather arrived with the Jews from Sicily, Puglia, Basillicata and Naples.
The original location of the ghetto was near the Ponte Fabricio (Fabicio Bridge) and there craftsmen and merchants flourished until the middle 16th century when Pope Paul IV created a ghetto near the Teatro di Marcello and Jews were forbidden to move freely outside this area, to the extent that the gates were locked at night. It was only in 1870 that the ghetto was dissolved along with the Pope’s power by the new Italian state.
During that time, Jewish housewives were forced to be creative with limited resources and the need to keep the recipes kosher. Artichokes, cheese, salted cod were cheap and readily available, and so variation upon variation was turned out. Artichokes were not a local ingredient having been brought by the Arabs to Italy via Sicily.
Today, many Jewish families still live around here, and this area is known for its Kosher cusine which follows the following strict precepts:
- No flesh of animals that are not ruminants can be consumed, so no pig or rabbits
- No fish that has neither fins or scales, so no mollusks
- Animals must be slaughtered using a traditional method that inflicts as little pain as possible, and they must be bled dry before consumption
Source: Culinaira – Italy, Tandem Verlag GmbH 2007
Every ghetto had its own foods and traditions that result as much from the wealth of the occupants as the foreigners who joined the community. The ghetto of Rome was among the poorest in Italy; they were “excluded from most professions except money-lending, dealing in old clothes and bric-a-brac, and selling food in the street. Many of them became friggitori-street vendors of deep-frying morsels, mainly of fish and vegetables for which they became famous.” (source: Claudia Roden in The Dishes of the Jews of Italy: A Historical Survey)
Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-Style Artichokes)
Recipe adapted from Chow
Makes: 4 to 6 servings
1 lemon, sliced in half
4 artichokes regular or baby
½ cup flour
4 c vegetable oil
1. Squeeze the juice from 1 of the lemon halves into a large, nonreactive bowl and fill the bowl halfway with water; set aside. Cut the remaining lemon half into 4 wedges; set aside.
2. Trim the leafy top third of the artichoke. Pull off the dark outer leaves to reveal the tender yellow inner leaves. Trim the stem bottom.
3. Cut around the outside of the artichoke with a paring knife to remove the remaining tough leaf base. Using a vegetable peeler or a paring knife, shave the dark green skin from the stem, smoothing the edges where the leaves were attached.
4. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise through the leaves and stem. Using a small spoon, gently scoop out the tough purple choke and the fuzz found between the leaves and stem; discard.
5. Cut each artichoke half in half again lengthwise and place in the reserved lemon water. Repeat with the remaining artichokes.
6. Meanwhile, bring a medium pot of generously salted water to a boil. Prepare a large bowl filled halfway with ice and water; set aside. Remove the artichoke quarters from the lemon water, drop them into the boiling water, and cook until just tender, about 3 to 4 minutes. Drain and transfer to the prepared ice water bath until cool. Drain again and pat dry between towels (the drier the better).
7. Place the flour in a medium bowl; set aside. Line another medium bowl with a paper towel; set aside.
8. In a medium pot (an be the same one used to boil the artichokes, just make sure it is completely dry) add the oil, and set over high heat until the oil temperature reaches 350°F. Toss half of the artichoke pieces in the bowl of flour, shake off any excess, and, using a slotted spoon, slowly lower them into the hot oil. Fry until golden brown, about 1½ to 2 minutes. Using the slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to the paper-towel-lined bowl, generously sprinkle with salt, and toss to coat. Repeat. Serve immediately with the reserved lemon wedges.