You have to wonder about the man who ate the first artichoke.
Prickly and ugly with a giant fur ball inside, how could he have known what a treasure he had?
Luckily, we can all reap the rewards of his bravery, particularly now when artichokes are in season and easy to find in the grocery store produce section.
"I think it's an intimidating-looking vegetable," said New York-based cookbook author and Italian cooking expert Michele Scicolone.
While artichokes are abundant in Italian cuisine, many home cooks don't consider them beyond draining a can of artichoke hearts or thawing a frozen block for mixing into hot spinach dip.
Scicolone said fresh artichokes take time to clean and prepare, which she believes keeps many cooks from attempting them. "There's a lot of work in the preparation," she said, adding, "But when you learn to love the flavor of the artichoke, it really is worth the effort."
When cooking fresh, whole artichokes, the globes need to be trimmed of their thorns, have their tops trimmed off, stems cleaned, and the hairy choke inside removed.
When steaming artichokes whole, it's best to cut the stem off so the flat bottom stands up inside a steamer basket, but it's OK to leave the choke in place. Artichokes are done steaming when a leaf pulls out without any effort. Without a steamer basket, simply place artichokes inside a pot so they fit snugly and are standing up, add about an inch of water, cover and simmer until they are soft and a leaf pulls out easily.
For eating, leaves are pulled out one at a time, dipped in melted butter, hollandaise sauce or mayonnaise, and then scraped against the bottom teeth to remove the flesh from the leaves.
Once the outer leaves are eaten, use a spoon (or fingers) to remove the hairy choke, which will reveal the succulent heart that lies beneath — the prize at the end.
While steaming is the most basic preparation, Scicolone said Italian cuisine features numerous ways for preparing artichokes because they are grown in abundance in Italy. Smaller artichokes often are served battered and deep-fried, and hearts can be marinated or used in stews and braises, she noted. One of her favorite dishes is to slice them up and toss them with fettuccini.
Scicolone said one of the reasons artichokes remain such a culinary mystery to many is because they aren't widely grown so people just aren't familiar with them. "It's not like a tomato that anyone can grow in the back yard," she said.
That doesn't stop some folks from trying.
Artichokes are a perennial plant in the thistle family.
Scicolone said stuffing artichokes is the most classic Southern Italian preparation for the vegetable.
When stuffing artichokes, it's important to use good bread crumbs — preferably homemade, not the already seasoned variety from the grocery store — and a high quality cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino Romano, which is sharper and saltier, Scicolone said.
"It's going to be as good as the ingredients you put into it," she said.
Stuffed artichokes can be cooked on the stove top or baked in the oven. One whole artichoke is the perfect single serving.
Nearly all U.S. artichokes are grown in California, and they are in season now.
Juice of 3 lemons
Zest of 1 lemon
6 large artichokes
11/2 cups fine dry bread crumbs
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano or Parmigiano-Reggiano
1/2 cup toasted pine nuts, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 large hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped
¾ teapsoon kosher salt
1 cup dry white wine (or chicken broth or stock)
¾ teaspoon pepper
To prepare artichokes, fill a bowl with cold water. Add the juice of one lemon and squeezed-out lemon halves.
Peel and trim the stem of each artichoke. Pull off any tough outer leaves and discard. Using a paring knife, trim away any tough parts around the base and stem of the artichoke. With a serrated knife, cut off the top third of the artichoke and discard. Push the leaves open to expose the fuzzy purple choke. With a small spoon, scrape out the choke and discard. This will expose the heart at the bottom of the artichoke. Put the prepared artichoke in the bowl of water and lemon, which will keep it from turning brown.
Once all artichokes are cleaned and prepared, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and prepare the stuffing.
Mix together the bread crumbs, grated cheese and pine nuts in a bowl. Stir in 1/2 cup of the parsley, 1/2 cup of the olive oil, the eggs, ¼ teaspoon salt and the lemon zest. Toss with a fork until all of the crumbs are moistened with the olive oil.
Remove the cleaned artichokes from the water and drain them upside down on a kitchen towel. Spread the leaves of an artichoke open, and fill the center with stuffing. Continue to work outward, sprinkling and packing stuffing into the rows of leaves as you separate them. Put the artichoke in a baking dish that will hold all six snugly. Repeat with remaining artichokes.
Pour the wine (or chicken broth or stock) and 1 cup of water around the artichokes in the baking dish; add the remaining lemon juice and the artichoke stems. Season the liquid with the remaining salt and pepper. Drizzle the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil over the artichokes. Tent the dish with foil and bake for about 30 minutes. Uncover, and bake until the artichokes are tender all the way through and the crumbs are browned and crusty, about 20 to 30 minutes more (depending on the size and toughness of your artichokes).
If the cooking juices are too thin, pour them into a small pot and boil for a few minutes to reduce. Stir in the remaining 2 tablespoons of chopped parsley. Serve the artichokes in shallow soup plates, topped with the cooking juices.
Makes 6 servings.
— Adapted from "Lidia's Italy in America," Lidia Matticchio Bastianich
FETTUCCINE WITH ARTICHOKES
3 medium artichokes
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, finely chopped
¼ cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1/2 cup dry white wine (or chicken broth or stock)
1 pound fresh fettuccine
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Cut off the top 1/2 to ¾ inch of the artichokes with a large, sharp knife. Rinse the artichokes under cold water, spreading the leaves open. Be careful to avoid the little thorns on the remaining tips of the leaves. Bend back and snap off all of the dark green leaves until you reach the pale yellowish cone of tender leaves at the center of the artichoke. With a vegetable peeler or sharp paring knife, peel off the tough outer skin around the base and stems. Leave the stems attached to the base. Trim off the ends of the stems. Cut the artichokes in half lengthwise and scoop out the fuzzy chokes with a spoon. Cut the artichokes into thin lengthwise slices.
Pour the oil into a saucepan large enough to hold the cooked pasta. Add the onion, parsley, and garlic and cook over medium heat until the onion is golden, about 15 minutes.
Add the artichoke slices, wine or broth, and salt and pepper to taste. Cover and cook until the artichokes are tender when pierced with a fork, about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, bring at least 4 quarts of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of salt, then the pasta. Stir well. Cook over high heat, stirring frequently, until the pasta is al dente, tender yet still firm to the bite. Drain the pasta, reserving some of the cooking water. Add the pasta to the pan with the artichokes.
Add the butter and a little of the reserved cooking water if the pasta seems dry. Toss well. Serve immediately.
Makes 4 servings.
—"1000 Italian Recipes," Michele Scicolone
ARTICHOKE AND POTATO CASSEROLE
(CARCIOFI CON PATATE AL FORNO)
4 medium artichokes or one 9-ounce package frozen artichoke hearts, thawed
4 cups water
1 1/2 pounds baking potatoes, peeled and cut into thin rounds
Salt, to taste
¼ teaspoon white pepper
2 1/2 cups milk or light cream
2/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
If using fresh artichokes, cut stems and remove the outer two layers of leaves and discard them. Cut the artichoke horizontally 1/2 inch from the top and discard the leaves. If using frozen hearts, cut them into thin slices and set aside.
Place the fresh artichokes in a deep pan, large enough to hold them snugly. Pour in enough water to cover them. Bring the artichokes to a boil, then lower the heat and cook them covered until you can easily pull away a leaf, about 30 minutes. Drain the artichokes and allow them to cool.
Remove the remaining leaves (save them to nibble on). Use a spoon to carefully remove the hairy choke in the center. You are now left with the artichoke heart. Clean all the artichokes, then cut the hearts into thin slices. Toss the potatoes in a bowl with salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Lightly butter a 14-by-21/2-inch casserole dish or au gratin pan. Make a layer of potatoes in the dish, overlapping them slightly. Arrange half of the artichoke heart slices over the potatoes; sprinkle the layer with salt and pepper, then make another layer like the first, ending with the potatoes.
Slowly pour the milk or cream over the potatoes. Cover the dish with aluminum foil and bake 45 minutes. Uncover the dish, sprinkle the cheese over the top and bake for an additional 15 minutes or until the cheese has browned slightly. Serve immediately.
Makes 6 servings.
Note: Do not use aluminum pans to cook artichokes, as the metal will leave an off taste. Use porcelain or stainless steel.
—Adapted from "Ciao Italia Slow and Easy," Mary Ann Esposito
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