Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A is for Artichoke

I was in the supermarket a few days ago, buying artichokes, when a lady and her husband came up and spoke to me. “What in the world,” she said, in her polite, gentle Southern tones, “are those? And however do you cook them?”

(One sweet person confided to me that she had tried boiling them and they were awful!-- so she threw them out. They would be, if you boiled them and tried to eat that.)

All of us probably have seen those prickly, hard, green vegetables at the supermarket. They look rather like a great big thistle—or like a green, leathery, flower-bud--but the question the Gentle Lady asked is the question most people have: How in the world do you cook them?

“Simple,” I told her. And it is. Not easy, but simple.

I’ll tell you in a minute, but first, let me tell you a little about artichokes. They are native to Sicily, and grow wild there and many other places with the same climate: dry but not desert, and they enjoy rain as long as it drains away. They hate wet feet. They're easy to grow at the back of the garden and will last sometimes for twenty years, giving you artichoke all the while.

They really are a relative of the thistle, with long, serrated, prickly leaves and thick overlapping petals. These petals start large at the outside, growing smaller and thinner toward the middle, until they are almost transparent at the center.

The center, or “choke,” is the problem.

The choke can kill you if you don’t know how to handle it.

Please!—don’t freak or give up on artichokes! Just listen for a minute and I’ll teach you how to make them perfectly safe and absolutely delicious! Just hang in there with me for a little while longer.

The “choke’ is the equivalent of a flower-center; but instead of a velvety center a daisy displays, the artichokes have a bristly, prickly round “brush” of individual hairs, each armed with a prickle, that—if swallowed or inhaled—causes the eater to choke. Hence the name. The inhaled hairs cause the body to react by producing so much mucus that it strangles the unwise eater, and tragedy can follow.

There’s an easy way to get around this. Trust me, people, I’ve been cooking and eating artichokes for three-quarters of a century and I haven’t killed anyone yet, nor have I strangled on artichokes. Guess why?

BECAUSE WE REMOVE THE CHOKE!—which is the same as pulling a rattlesnake’s fangs and poison glands. Without the choke, the artichoke is a pussycat. A delicious gustatory pussycat. And now you’re going to find out how to do it!

Here’s how you prepare an artichoke to be safe and luscious to eat:

1.) Wash the outside of your artichoke. You don’t really have to do this, because you’re going to steam them over boiling water, but we Americans are paranoid about cleanliness when it comes to food, so wash it if you will. I won’t tell.
2.) Now take a tightly-closed artichoke (the ones with wide-spread petals are old and tough—don’t buy them!) and with a large serrated knife, cut the top off the artichoke, straight across, until the blossom is about 4 1/2"--5" tall.
3.) With your kitchen shears, snip off the prickly points on each remaining petal. Cut them straight across like French Fingernails. Take off about ½” of the tip.
3.) Cut off the stem level with the bottom of the artichoke so it can sit up straight, and remove any small, broken or discolored petals around the stem.
4.) Next, spread the petals apart, gently but firmly moving them outward, away from the center. Press them away, but don’t break them. Be firm but careful.
5.) Now with a tablespoon, begin at the inside, where the petals are 2” long and less, and start scraping them off the inner base of the artichoke. That is, from the 2” long petals near the center, to the entire center. Remove it all. Scrape them up from the bottom, making sure to clean out under the longer leaves as well, because the “choke” tends to try to hide little prickles under there, too.
6.) DO NOT USE WATER at this point. Water will glue the prickles to the sides and you will fail to see them. Dry-scrape the “choke” out of the artichoke blossom, taking away all petals 2” long or shorter, and discard them in your compost container. It takes strong hands, but you can do it.
7.) You should end up with circular rows of petals surrounding a large, empty center with a smooth base inside. BE SURE TO CLEAN WELL UNDER ALL THE REMAINING PETALS SURROUNDING THE CENTER. The center base probably will turn an unappetizing dark color. Ignore it. It’s just showing off. When it’s cooked, it will be jade green and luscious and nice as you please. If it bothers you too much, squeeze a little lemon juice over it and watch it start to behave.

Now for the Stuffing. What? You did know there would be some kind of wonderful Sicilian stuffing for these things, didn’t you? Well, sweetie, there is. This is how you make it, and it’s enough for three nice big (properly prepared) artichokes.

1 ½ boxes Italian Bread Crumbs
3 ½ c Parmesan cheese, divided
1 large onion
3 large ribs of celery
½ head garlic
10-12 leaves fresh basil
1 tsp oregano
1 tsp red pepper flakes
¾ tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp salt
6 oz shrimp in their jackets*
6 ozs sliced mushrooms*
2 eggs
1 ½ c white wine*
Olive oil


Peel and mince onion. Reserve in a big bowl. Trim, slice and chop the celery small. Use the leaves as well. Smash, peel and mince garlic and julienne the fresh basil leaves. Reserve them in a medium bowl. Add your red and black peppers, oregano, and salt—everything we’ve mentioned so far--to this bowl as well.

In a little bowl, beat the two eggs (if you’re using them) with 1 Tbsp water. Reserve.

Save the garlic peels, celery trimmings, and the heavy basil stems; you’re going to be using them in just a minute.

Peel the shrimp and chop them small. Rough-chop your mushrooms and put them in the same second little bowl as the chopped shrimp.


In a large frying pan, heat about ¼ c of olive oil until it's hot. Add the contents of the onion/garlic/basil/oregano/peppers bowl to the pan and sweat the veggies until they're 'sweating' and the onions look transparent and soft.

Now add the mushrooms and shrimp to the veggie/ mixture

To the small saucepan, add 1-1/2 c of water, and 1 ½” white wine* and the shrimp jackets, the garlic peels, celery trimmings, and the chopped basil stems. Place them all together over medium heat and watch them carefully. Shrimp jackets (shells) love to try to climb out of the pot in a lovely white foam that smells absolutely horrible when it hits the heat. Otherwise, it smells heavenly. Keep it all in the pot by stirring and/or adjusting the heat. Do not cover completely; offset the cover to prevent their boiling over.

Once the mushrooms are plumped and the shrimp are just pink WITH NO TRANSLUCENCE (be really sure of this, okay?) add the bread crumbs and keep stirring until everything is mixed together like old friends. Toast the breadcrumbs for a minute or two, then take the pan off the heat. Using the back of your wooden spoon, stir in about ½ c olive oil, blending it in until everything looks damp but not wet or (God forbid!) gloppy. If there are any lumps, mash them with the back of your spoon.

If you’re using the eggs, add them now and mix them in well. Now, using a ladle and pouring it by ½ cups, strain a little of the shrimp/celery/basil/garlic skin/wine stock (“shrimp stock”) through a sieve or strainer into the crumb mixture. If it's still too dry, add a bit more, but don't add too much. As we agreed above, we don't want it to be sloppy or even wet. Just promising. Mix everything well until it’s evenly blended, then add 2 c of the Parmesan cheese.

You have added everything EXCEPT THE rest of the SHRIMP STOCK. Strain that and reserve it in the freezer for gumbo, etouffee, or Shrimp Creole later. The recipes will be in future blog posts, I promise. And oh, do I make a gool ol' gumbo!

You also have ¾ c Parmesan cheese left over. Good. Wait a minute, you’ll need it in just a second.

Place your first artichoke in the big bowl and, beginning at the outside, use your wooden spoon (and your hands, once it cools a little) to fill every petal with stuffing, ramming it down well to the base. Continue to fill the petals, going around and around. Pack in firmly as much stuffing as each petal will hold. The artichoke will expand to permit this and look marvelous.

At last, fill the center with stuffing, again, pushing it down well. When the blossom is so full it can’t hold another crumb, pour ¼ c (one-third) of the reamining Parmesan cheese over the top; place the stuffed artichoke on a rack over a few inches of boiling water, and steam over medium-low heat until a petal pulls out easily, with a slight tug. Keep a sharp eye out, so your water doesn't boil away.

It’s often advisable to tie the petals together loosely with clean kitchen string, but be careful not to tie them too tightly; the stuffing needs room to swell. Cover tightly and simmer hard over medium-low heat until the artichoke is done.

Refrigerate the artichoke if you have used the shrimp/shrimp stock/ mushrooms or eggs, all of which are perishable and optional (but yummy!) Artichokes WITHOUT the abovementioned additions can stand out for a couple of hours.

Repeat the process for stuffing and steaming the other two artichokes, and refrigerate them until they are devoured. It generally doesn't take long.

Here’s how to eat them:

Cut them into wedges, if you like, or do it our way, which is to put the whole blossom on the table on a sturdy plate and let family and friends keep at it until they gobble it up. The stuffing is scraped with the bottom teeth off the petals individually, along with the base of the petal itself. Sounds awful. Isn’t.

Quite the contrary, it’s practically addictive! The base itself is the piece de resistance, a gourmet's delight! Tender and creamy-firm, it’s a great substitute for English Muffins in an Eggs Benedict. A well-prepared base, covered with a perfectly-poached egg and a mask of Hollandaise sauce, is a pure joy!

Wonderful stuffed as an hors d’ouvre, or at a party as a savory offering. But you’d better make a lot! Your guests are going to love it!