I always associate certain foods with particular holidays and times of year. Christmas dinner was synonymous with lasagna and my grandmother’s chicken and escarole soup. My birthday in October was celebrated with a tray of eggplant parm, made just for me since it was (and still is) my favorite. Easter was never my favorite holiday because roast lamb and hard-boiled eggs are two things that will be on the menu in my personal purgatory should it turn out to exist. I was never sad to see them disappear.
What I did miss when spring turned into summer were stuffed artichokes, a once-a-year treat that coincided with the peak of artichoke season from March through May. Fresh globe artichokes seem to be available more often than they used to be, reappearing in produce sections in the fall after a summer hiatus — which means I can make stuffed artichokes almost whenever I want. But these edible thistles still make me think of spring.
Stuffing whole artichokes with breadcrumbs, cheese, herbs, and garlic is likely a southern Italian — and definitely an Italian-American — tradition, though I’ve yet to come across them made this way on restaurant menus in Italy. And when I visited Castroville — the “Artichoke Capital of the World” — during a road trip down the California coast years ago, I ate artichoke soup and artichoke fritters and even an artichoke cupcake in a diner there, but stuffed artichokes were nowhere to be found.
Fortunately, you can find them on the appetizer menu at Fanizzi’s in Provincetown. And in New Orleans (my other home) they are on the menu at many of the old-school Italian restaurants around town, like Liuzza’s on Bienville Street.
The stuffed artichokes at these places are larger and more strongly flavored than the ones my family made in New York. I’m not sure where New Orleans restaurants source their artichokes, but the ones at Liuzza’s are much larger than the roughly fist-sized ones I see in the supermarket. And the stuffing in them is enhanced by a generous amount of anchovy, a telltale sign of the Sicilian influence in New Orleans Italian cuisine.
I have nothing against anchovies, at least when they melt into the background of a dish like they do in a puttanesca sauce. But I don’t love them curled on a pizza or draped over a salad. And I’m not crazy about them in a stuffed artichoke, either — their pungent smack tends to overwhelm the subtle taste of the artichoke. Instead, I add a tablespoon or so of finely chopped capers to my stuffing mixture, just enough to punch things up a bit. (I’ve been known to zest half a lemon rind and add that, too.)
Otherwise, this is pretty much the same recipe my mom made for special springtime dinners when I was growing up. It’s something your own mom might like to be treated to this weekend. Or make them for yourself and a few lucky friends. Just don’t wait ’til spring is over.
Makes 4 servings
4 medium artichokes (If they’re on the larger side — late spring and fall artichokes can be huge — you may have to increase the ingredients to make sure you have enough stuffing for all four.)
2 cups Italian-style breadcrumbs
½ cup grated Romano cheese
1 generous Tbsp. capers, drained and finely chopped
Zest of half a lemon, finely minced (optional)
3-4 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 tsp. dried oregano
¼ cup chopped Italian parsley, plus extra for garnish
1/3 cup olive oil, plus extra for drizzling
1 lemon, plus extra fresh lemon juice for serving
- Prepare the artichokes: Rinse the artichokes and find your sharpest chef’s knife. Lay each artichoke on its side and cut off the top inch or so, then spin it around and trim the stem flush with the base so it stands up by itself. With scissors, snip off the pointy purplish tip of each individual leaf. Put the artichokes in a bowl big enough to cover them with water to which you have added a tablespoon of kosher salt and the juice of half a lemon. Let them soak happily for about half an hour.
- Prepare the stuffing: Combine the breadcrumbs and grated cheese in a bowl. Add a few grinds of black pepper; the seasoned breadcrumbs and cheese make extra salt unnecessary. Heat the olive oil in a skillet. Sauté the garlic until golden, then remove from heat and stir in the parsley, capers, and oregano. Add the breadcrumb and cheese mixture and stir everything to combine thoroughly. The stuffing should look and feel like wet sand, but it will smell infinitely better. Set aside.
- Stuff the artichokes: Remove the artichokes from their bath and pat dry. Turn each artichoke upside down on a cutting board and press lightly to spread the leaves a bit. Since it is very important that everyone gets the same amount of stuffing in their artichoke, mentally divide the breadcrumb mixture into four equal portions, or measure out if you’re that type. Using your fingers and a teaspoon or small flexible spatula, insert about a half teaspoon of stuffing into each leaf (technically, each bract) of the artichoke, making sure that each leaf has some stuffing nestled into its base, and reserving a little extra to round out the top. (This is time-consuming and shows why my mom made these only for special occasions.)
- Cook the artichokes: Put a steaming rack on the bottom of a small Dutch oven or large saucepan — whatever you have that will fit the artichokes snugly. Put the artichokes in and add just enough water to reach the bottom leaves. Squeeze the other half of the lemon and drizzle a little olive oil over the artichokes. Bring the water to a gentle boil, turn down the heat, and let simmer, covered, for about 45 minutes to an hour — late season artichokes tend to need a little more time. Keep an eye on things and add a little more water if it looks like it’s about to boil dry. (Some recipes call for baking these in their water bath instead — which makes for a wonderfully crispy top layer of stuffing — but not being able to see if the water is boiling off has always made me nervous.) The artichokes are done when you can remove a leaf with the gentlest of tugs. If the whole artichoke tries to come along, it hasn’t been cooked enough.
- Remove the artichokes from the pan and reserve whatever cooking liquid is left. Spoon a little of the cooking liquid over each one. Sprinkle with parsley and another squeeze of lemon. Serve when they’re cool enough to handle, or store in a covered container in the fridge for a few days. Reheat in a microwave, if you must, but they’re better at room temperature.