The Art (& Heart) of Artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

medium-sized artichokes

I wish I could remember the first time I understood an artichoke. It must have been early on because you would think that first encounter would be memorable. I should ask my mom: when did I first eat an artichoke?

And what a name. Artie Choke.  (Remind me to use that for a character in a story or play I will write.) And in Italian it’s even more fun: carciofo. Either way it’s the thistle I love.

How many times have you wondered: who ever figured out how to eat it? What other food do you throw most of it away? While you’re busy getting at its “core” which is its delectable gold? (Well, okay, a clam comes to mind.)

In my Italian-American family we had 2 ways of making them. Braised-boiled plain with garlic and parsley.

plain cooked artichokes

plain cooked artichokes

Or stuffed with flavored breadcrumb packed between the leaves. And braise-boiled.  We thought of the plain style as Sicilian (my Dad would only eat them that way). And the other style…Napolitana? Maybe.

stuffed artichokes

stuffed artichokes

I used to like just plain. Now I like stuffed. But frankly, I’ll eat them any way you can imagine. Have you had the Roman Carciofi alla Giudia (Jewish-style)? The artichokes are smashed flat and deep-fried. If you ever have the chance… ORDER THAT.

How to begin:

Cut off the top third…and the stem at the bottom. I often use a large bread knife to get through the tough leaves.

cut off the top of the artichoke

cut off the top of the artichoke

Snip the outer leaves that have thorns so you don’t get “stuck.”

snip off the thorns

snip off the thorns

I rinse them under cool water while trying to open them a little with some gentle pulls. Then shake them out to get rid of the drip-drops. Here’s my current favorite stuffing: panko, minced garlic, minced parsley, raisins and pine nuts.

stuffing ingredients

stuffing ingredients

Mix that up and drizzle a little olive oil to moisten. Season with salt and pepper.

filling

filling

Pile a handful of stuffing on top then pull open leaves here and there getting the mixture to drop in. Or just push it in. But go easy, you don’t want to break the leaves. It’s a balancing act. Open the leaves…don’t break the leaves. The enigma of artichoke-stuffing.

stuffing artichokes

stuffing artichokes

Set them upright in a pot with a little heft to it (they will be simmering for a while). Add water till about halfway up the artichokes. Then drizzle olive oil on top of them and some for the water, too. Season the whole thing with salt.

artichokes in the pot

artichokes in the pot

Heat till the liquid starts boiling, then lower to a simmer. I set a cover on askew. Cook for 40 minutes to an hour. If you can pull a leaf off easily they are done. I like the hearts to get real tender.

Alternate tip. My mom is not a big garlic-in-your-food fan. She’ll smash a clove to start a tomato sauce, but then take it out before serving (it’s a common Italian move). So for less garlic impact, instead of adding minced garlic to the stuffing, just add some crushed cloves to the cooking water.

Don’t know how to eat an artichoke? Here’s a primer (I wish I could draw diagrams). Pick off the leaves (one by one), scrape off the bit of heart-meat at the bottom tip with your teeth. Yum. You can’t eat the whole leaf because it’s tough. As you get deeper into the artichoke the leaves get more tender and you can eat the whole leaf. Continue until you reach the spiky small leaves at the center. Scrape them away along with the fuzzy “choke” covering the heart at the bottom. Then you have the heart. You gotta have heart. And you especially gotta eat this whole entire heart.

Also. Those stems you cut off? If you want to get meticulous, there’s a little bit of heart in those, too. It’s the white center.

there's even heart in the stem

there’s even heart in the stem

You can trim the stringy green all around the white center and drop the trimmed stem into the cooking liquid surrounded by its big brothers.

heart in the stem

heart in the stem

It’s just an added hit of yummy heart.

When I shared an apartment with my pal, Ginger, back in my theatre days, we ate artichokes all the time. She’s from California so she was as artichoke-crazy as me (you know, Castroville CA is the artichoke capital of the US). Her version was to boil them, then dip the leaves in melted butter as you nibbled. That’s another happy choice.

Once we drove into NYC to see a Broadway play (we lived in Huntington and worked at PAF Playhouse). Since we were budget-conscious we brought our dinner with us to eat in the car before the show. I have a dim memory-short-movie of us in the front seat of her VW van, in the dark, parked on a city street, hungrily scraping the leaves of our artichokes. But I have no idea what play we went to see.

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

at PAF Playhouse-my stage managing days

Backstage at PAF Playhouse with 2 other PAF-ites: Christine & Bill. (Me, on the right.) Quite likely I had an artichoke for dinner.

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