The rest of my family was away for New Year's, and I got to spend a week cooking just for myself. When I don't have anyone else to please, I end up doing things like eating at 4 p.m. or 10 p.m., having just ice cream or just salad for dinner, or cooking elaborate meals of foods only I enjoy. Like stuffed artichokes.
I LOVE artichokes. My daughter once asked me what they taste like, and I couldn't describe them because the only thing that tastes remotely like artichokes is artichokes. I like them pickled--especially on pizza--steamed, and even deep fried. But my favorite way to enjoy them is stuffed because that's how I grew up eating them. And whenever I find myself with extra pork--like the remnants of the Christmas ham--I love to make stuffed artichokes.
When I got married, I gave my mother a blank recipe book and asked her to write down some recipes for me. But every time I came home for a visit, the book was still empty. My mother was not a written-recipe kind of person, although she loved cookbooks and often read them from beginning to end, like novels. I finally sat down and made her dictate recipes to me like the Thanksgiving cranberry relish, and her pecan pie. I hoped this would inspire her to write down other recipes for me. No deal. Over the years my siblings and I have tried (and often failed) to recreate our favorite childhood foods from memory. Potato salad: I know she used yellow mustard with mayonnaise and grated the onion in so there would be no chunks, but after that memory fails me. Spaghetti sauce. Hamburger pizza that had a top and bottom crust with a filling made almost entirely of ground beef. And, of course, the stuffed artichokes.
Artichokes are tricky to cook. They are members of the thistle family, and you need to prep them first so they don't stab you when you eat them. With my kitchen sheers, I started at the bottom and trim the leaves, cutting the sharp spike off the tip of each petal. I worked my way up to the spikes at the very top, and just cut straight across the top with a sharp paring knife. I also cut off the stem flush with the bottom of the globe of the artichoke.
When I first started cooking artichokes for myself, I did it badly. I trimmed them, stuffed them and baked them. They never were cooked well enough to be tender. Then someone I worked with recommended Barbara Kafka's book, Vegetable Love. If you have a friend give you five eggplants from her garden (it happened to me this summer), and need suggestions on what to do with them, Kafka not only tells you how to prep them for cooking, she gives you a number of amazing recipes. I now follow her directions for cooking stuffed artichokes--still keeping my mother in mind.
So after trimming the artichokes, I placed them in a metal steamer basket over water. I also peeled the stems and added them to the basket. (Artichokes are expensive and I didn't want to waste any of them.) I made sure the water under the basket was boiling, and then lowered the heat and steamed the artichokes for thirty minutes. When I took them off out of the basket, the leaves of the artichoke had opened more which made them easier to stuff.
At this point, Kafka recommends taking out the center leaves and the feathery choke from each artichoke so that you can stuff the center of the bulb as well as the base of each leaf. My mother never did this, and I don't either. I never seem to have made that much stuffing.
For the stuffing I used:
- 1 cup smallish dry bread cubes
- 1 cup of equally sized ham cubes
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
- the chopped, cooked artichoke stems
- salt & pepper
I whirred this in the food processor with the metal blade until it made a medium crumb. I added some olive oil--maybe 2 tablespoons--to moisten it. Then I divided the stuffing roughly into fourths so I would know how much I had for each artichoke.
Then, using my fingers, I started at the bottom of the artichoke and stuffed each leaf with a bit of the stuffing--perhaps 1/2 a teaspoon. I packed it tight into the bottom of the leaves which in turn caused the artichoke to blossom open a bit wider.
When all four of the artichokes were stuffed, I placed them in a beat up old metal baking dish, and added water to the pan so that the it wasn't high enough to get into the lowest stuffed petals. Then I covered the pan with foil and put it in the oven at 350 degress for about 20 minutes.
While the artichokes were heating through, I made my dipping sauce. My mother used to make several. First was a mayonnaise-lemon mixture. I always liked that one, but now I don't consider mayo to be an basic sauce like it was in the 50s. Second, she would mix melted butter and lemon juice. Again this is a bit heavy for my current taste preferences. So I came up with my own mixture of olive oil and balsamic vinegar with a heavy sprinkle of Mrs. Dash's Table Blend. I can't rave enough about this last ingredient. It's a hearty blend of peppers, vegetables, herbs, and lemon--fabulous on everything from baked potatoes to scrambled eggs. It adds a nice balance to the zing of the oil and the vinegar.
When the artickokes were done, I sat down to enjoy one with a nice glass of red wine. If you have never eaten an artichoke before, you pull off one of the stuffed leaves, dip it in the sauce, and then scrape the stuffing and white flesh of the artichoke at the bottom of the petal off with your teeth. Kafka refers to it as "gnawing." For the leaves at the top that didn't get stuffed, just dip them in the sauce, and eat the base of the leaf. When you are done, pull off the last of the leaves at the top. This leaves you with the furry topping of the choke. Scrape that off with a spoon and cut the base into pieces, and dip those into your sauce as well. These are the final, heaveny bites of artichoke that make all the rest of the work worth it.
I put each leftover artichoke in a individual round plastic storage container, and refrigerated them. Then I just reheated them in the microwave for three more meals. So the next time you find yourself with leftover ham--after Easter perhaps--look for artichokes in the prioduce section of your grocery store and give them a try.