I distinctly remember dipping the petals in melted butter and eating them with my hands, gently scraping the fleshy portion with my teeth and accumulating quite a pile of the tougher, more fibrous parts on my plate.
It was a novel – almost magical – experience. It felt like playing with my food, something for which a child would normally get scolded. I was fascinated – and hooked.
After that, artichokes – with their distinctive, earthy and slightly nutty and bitter flavor – became one of my favorite vegetables. I always looked forward to the hands-on way of eating them.
Growing up, we usually had them the same, simple way: steamed, with melted butter and maybe a little garlic. And that’s how I always made them as an adult – until I came across a recipe for Nana Molly’s Stuffed Artichokes in “How to Feed a Family” by Laura Keogh and Ceri Marsh.
The gorgeous green globes – full of fresh herbs, bread crumbs and parmesan – caught my eye. Now I’m hooked on those thick petals all over again.
Nana’s stuffed artichokes were easy to prepare, fun to eat and full of flavor. I served them as an appetizer when friends came over for dinner recently, and I don’t think the serving platter ever touched the table. We just kept passing it around and pulling off petals smothered with parmesan cheese, garlic, fresh herbs and olive oil.
Without all of those trimmings, globe artichokes are fat-free sources of potassium, vitamin C and folate. They’re low-calorie, too. A plain, medium artichoke has about 60 calories.
The thorny buds are large members of the thistle family and native to the Mediterranean region. The flowers were food for ancient Greeks and Romans – and the stuff of myth.
In Greek mythology, Zeus, in a fit of rage, turned his mistress Cynara into the first artichoke plant. A real beauty, Cynara lived on the island of Zinari, where Zeus was visiting his brother Poseidon. Zeus fell in love with Cynara and made her a goddess, but she missed her home and her mother so much that she would sneak back to Earth to visit them from Mount Olympus. For that un-goddess-like behavior, she became an edible plant.
Today, Italy leads the world in artichoke production. California, particularly Monterey County – home of Castroville, the self-proclaimed “Artichoke Center of the World” – produces most of the U.S. crop.
Artichokes were brought to America in the 19th century by French and Spanish immigrants. I love the fact that this particular recipe comes from someone’s grandmother who proclaimed “love” was her secret ingredient.
I might add a little lemon juice or zest for another layer of flavor next time I make this dish, which I’ve since learned is popular during Lent – which starts today.
Some Lenten and Italian recipes also include anchovies or tuna or both, mozzarella, balsamic vinegar, sweet yellow or orange peppers, and capers.
I’m looking forward to experimenting with combinations, and generously spooning stuffing into the petals of the pine cone-shaped flower bud for years to come.
Nana Molly’s Stuffed Artichokes
6 fresh artichokes, cleaned
1 cup fresh Italian breadcrumbs
5 to 6 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup chopped fresh oregano
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut off artichoke stems. Clip ½-inch off the top of each artichoke, then clip whatever other leaf tips remain. Gently spread the leaves apart (but you don’t want to snap them) using your thumb and index finger. In a large bowl, mix the breadcrumbs, garlic, Parmesan cheese, parsley and oregano with a few drops olive oil to help bind it all together. Press a teaspoonful of bread mixture into each artichoke leaf, beginning from the outside edge and working toward the center.
Sit the artichokes in two large baking dishes. Fill the dishes with water about halfway, just short of the first row of leaves. Cover the dishes with aluminum foil and place them in the oven, bringing the liquid to a slow simmer for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the leaves are tender.
Remove the artichokes from the oven and use tongs to place them on a serving dish. Drizzle the tops with the remaining olive oil and serve.