Even though it’s an effort to prepare them, Jackie and I always buy little artichokes when they make their brief appearance in New York farmers’ markets – for us, they’re an event. Some of the ways we eat them are braised in white wine or as the main element of rice dishes such as paella and risotto. This season’s risotto differed from those of the past: At the market we’d encountered some particularly juicy, sweet and flavorful torpedo-shaped red onions (the Tropea variety), and I was using them like mad in all sorts of dishes that called for onions or shallots, including risottos. They mated well with salt-cured Italian speck, also sweet in a slightly funky way, and lightly smoked: flavors that in turn seemed a natural with artichokes (I thought back decades to breadcrumb-stuffed globe artichokes, whose filling often included minced ham or prosciutto).
For risotto I prefer to use small artichokes – less than three inches long not including the stem – because of their good looks and their multiple textures: the meaty bottom and stem contrasting with the few remaining layers of leaves, which are tender but not without fibers. But I’ve found that the bottoms of big globe artichokes work very well here: They’re easier to find, and less fussy to trim once you get the hang of it (for the technique take look around YouTube).
Indeed, you can forget about the artichokes altogether: Risotto of Tropea onions and speck has become a firm favorite. Just use twice the recipe quantity of onions and one and a half times the quantity of speck.
- 6 baby artichokes or 2 globe artichokes
- 1 medium-large red Tropea onion (see headnote) or large shallot or small onion
- 1/2 small clove garlic
- 1 Ounce lightly smoked Italian speck (or substitute prosciutto or a similar air-cured ham)
- A couple of fresh sage leaves, slivered or chopped fine (optional)
- 2 Tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 2/3 Cups risotto rice (I used vialone nano but am also fond of carnaroli)
- 1/4 Cup white wine
- 2 Cups chicken stock diluted with 2 cups water (you can substitute vegetable stock, but chicken is better in this dish)
- 1 generous pinch saffron (optional)
- 2 Tablespoons butter
- 1/3 Cup grated parmesan, or more to taste
(For a more streamlined and equally delicious variant, use twice the quantity of onion and one and a half times the quantity of speck and omit the artichokes.)
Trim the artichokes down to their tender hearts (and, for baby artichokes, their tender inner leaves). Quarter the baby artichoke hearts or cut each globe artichoke heart into six or eight wedges. Keep in cold water acidified with the juice of half a lemon until needed.
Before starting to cook, drain the artichoke pieces and dry them pretty thoroughly in a towel. Put the stock and water into a saucepan and bring up to the simmer; salt it lightly. If using saffron, put it to steep in half a cup of the hot liquid.
Chop the onion and the garlic medium-fine. Cut the speck into slivers, about 1/16 inch in breadth and 3/8 to 1/2 inch long. In a medium saucepan (I use one with flared sides – what used to be called a Windsor pan), over low heat, warm the olive oil and sweat the shallot and garlic with a little salt and the sage if using until soft, about 4 to 6 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the speck and cook for another 30 seconds to start to render its fat.
Raise the heat to medium. Add the artichokes, sprinkle with salt, and cook for one minute, stirring frequently. Raise the heat to medium and stir in the rice; after half a minute or so, add the wine and continue cooking and stirring vigorously for another half minute. Still, stirring, add the saffron infusion (if using) plus a small ladleful (2 or 3 fl oz) of stock. Now, proceed as usual for a risotto, stirring energetically and adding hot liquid 2 or 3 fl oz at a time as the previous addition is absorbed and merges creamily with the rice’s starch. Use your judgment about whether to slightly lower the heat as you go.
When the rice is just short of how you like it (not mushy-soft but pleasantly chewy with no trace of a hard core), stir in a couple of extra tablespoons of stock, cover the pan and let the risotto relax for three minutes. This is the moment when your dining companion(s) must be herded to the table, spoon in hand.
After three minutes, add the butter and parmesan and stir decisively to create the final creamy sauce; I almost always add additional stock at this point, enough to allow the finished risotto to flow. Serve in well-warmed dinner plates or shallow soup plates.