Sunday, March 28, 2010

Penne al Pesto di Carciofi con Pollo (Pasta with Artichoke Pesto and Chicken)

It's artichoke harvesting season here in Tuscany.  The markets and groceries stores are pushing the thistle-cousin like crazy.  I've been meaning to get into some of the action but have thus far abstained.  That is, until tonight.  Came back from the store earlier this afternoon with a few of these good-sized, purple, prickly-leafed vegetables and only a basic idea as to how I wanted to cut and serve them up.  Sometimes that's the best way going into creating a new dish - only having a rough outline or fuzzy vision of what you want the end plate to look like.  However, because of this, it usually takes me an inordinate amount of time to work myself through the cooking process since everything is being done off-the-cuff.  The goal is that if I decide to make the dish a second, third or Nth time, I will actually know what I'm doing and the process will be smoother.

A couple weeks ago, Becky's family was in town and we all took a road trip to Rome.  On the way, we stopped in a small hill town called Orvieto.  We found a small family-owned restaurant next door to the main church and had ourselves a nice little Italian lunch.  As a gesture of kindness to us out-of-towners, the owner's mother gave us a plate of pasta with home-made artichoke pesto.  It was one of the most amazing pasta dishes I've ever had.  The artichokes were prominent, but there was also something else in there that I couldn't quite place.  Becky suggested there may have been anchovies, which is very likely.  The Italians like their salted minnows.  Regardless, this recipe is my vain attempt at recreating that dish.  I may never achieve Italian grandmother-ness in regards to my cooking abilities, but for what it's worth, this version isn't too shabby either!  Of course I am a bit biased.

For this recipe, I do some "fancy" things with the walnuts that may or may not have a profound effect on the dish as a whole.  I'm just going to lay it out exactly as I prepared it, but if you feel like leaving out the walnut-toasting and basil-steaming steps, it probably won't change the end product a whole lot.  Also, a note when cooking the artichokes: you don't want to brown them a lot (they will brown as the natural oxidation and cooking processes occur) so make sure that the heat is low enough during the steaming steps that you aren't actually searing them any more.

 I won't get into the specifics of cleaning artichokes so if you are unfamiliar with it, go ahead and Google it.  There are plenty of tutorials and guides out there.  I'm sure you could even find something on YouTube if you want to see it done "live".  One very important thing to keep in mind, however, is that seconds after you expose the vulnerable inner-artichoke to the harsh, oxygen-infested air of your kitchen, it will start to brown as part of the oxidation process.  To prevent this, immediately transfer the cleaned pieces to a large bowl with water and lemon juice.  For the artichoke stems, just make sure you peel the outside layer off with a vegetable peeler and you'll be good to go.

  • Handful of walnuts, crushed
  • 1 c. fresh basil leaves, separated
  • Zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
  • 3 full-sized artichokes, cleaned with 4" - 6" stems intact
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/4 c. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated
  • 2 chicken breasts
  • 1/4 c. flour
  • 1 t. honey
  • 1/4 c. dry white wine
  • Penne (or similar) pasta
  1. In a small sauté pan on medium-low heat, gently toast the crushed walnuts ensuring that you do not burn them (this should take 5 - 7 minutes or so), tossing every 30 seconds or so
  2. Immediately transfer the walnuts to a small container with an air-tight lid, adding a couple basil leaves and a few strands of lemon zest before sealing them up
  3. Quarter the artichoke hearts and roughly chop the artichoke stems
  4. Bring a large sauté pan to medium-high heat with a bit of extra virgin olive oil and carefully add the artichoke pieces to it
  5. Toss the artichokes every so often until they become tender (5 - 6 minutes)
  6. Add the garlic to the pan, toss, add a bit of water and reduce heat to medium-low and cover with a large lid
  7. While the artichokes are steaming their way to ultimate tenderness, chiffonade the basil and put into a mixing bowl
  8. The artichokes and garlic should be very tender after 10 - 15 minutes of steaming in the pan so transfer them into the mixing bowl with the basil
  9. Also add the walnut mixture and Parmesan cheese to the mixing bowl
  10. If you have a food processor, transfer the mixing bowl ingredients to it and process with enough extra virgin olive oil to form a good paste.  If you do not have a food processor, a stick blender or standard blender will suffice
  11. Start cooking the pasta now
  12. Slice the chicken breasts into 1/4" slices and dredge through a mixture of flour, salt and pepper
  13. Sauté the chicken pieces in the large sauté pan with a bit of extra virgin olive oil until cooked through
  14. Add the honey and white wine to the chicken pan and reduce the heat to medium-low to create the reduction
  15. By the time the wine has reduced, the pasta should be done
  16. Strain the pasta and toss with the artichoke pesto (you can also add the chicken at this step if you would like)
  17. Transfer the pasta and chicken to serving plates and top with a fresh grating of Parmesan cheese
  18. Serve with lemon-steamed spinach or a side of your choice


  1. Sounds and looks delicious! I wonder when artichokes are actually in season in the States. We could probably get them imported most any time, but I'd love to try this with some local produce.

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