How to prep, cook and enjoy stuffed artichokes

Ann Maloney

THE WASHINGTON POST – I love artichoke hearts and buy them throughout the year in jars, cans and frozen to slip into dips, salads and stews, but when spring approaches and the lovely classic green globes start showing up in big piles at groceries and farmers markets, I long for a stuffed, steamed one like my mother used to make.

She would buy a dozen of them each March, stuff them with seasoned breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and olive oil and then pack them inside an oval, blue speckled roaster, add a little water and slip it all into the oven until they were just crisped on top and so tender the petals gave way with just a gentle tug.

She’d set aside a couple for us at home, but it was her custom to bring them to her colleagues at the high school where she taught, a way of sharing a bit of her Sicilian heritage. Artichokes are among the sweet and savoury food, which Sicilians began building in the Middle Ages. As Sicilians immigrated to New Orleans, they brought the tradition with them.

This spring, I started craving my mother’s stuffed artichokes. Maybe more so this year because it is the first since her death in August. As I prepared to make them, however, I realised I had more questions than answers. I can replicate my mother’s turkey giblet stuffing. I know how to make her cassata cake and trifle, but the artichokes seemed so simple I never really dug in deep on this one.

Turns out stuffed artichokes are a bit more nuanced than I expected. I read recipe after recipe in cookbooks and online. I tried making my own fresh breadcrumbs and chopping fresh herbs, but it was a lot of work that didn’t deliver enough return on that investment. I tried trimming the artichokes and then boiling them before stuffing them. It does make them steam more quickly, but resulted in softer artichokes that flatten and do not hold their shape once cooked.

Stuffed artichokes. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

I wanted that perfect little flower I remembered, that stood up on the plate with the browned crispy top, so I relied on my childhood memory, returning to store-bought Italian breadcrumbs, Parmesan cheese and olive oil and then tweaking just a bit as I experimented with boosting the flavour.

First, I had to select the vegetable and get past its considerable defences.

With its tightly packed, thorny-tipped, leathery outer petals, artichokes can, at first, seem like a daunting vegetable to tackle, but they are actually fairly easy to tame.

And it is a waste to eat just the heart when the other parts, including the stem, are delicious, too. Other than the thorny tips of the petals, the only other part of the artichoke that should be completely discarded is the hairy choke, which sits atop that meaty heart deep in its centre. Once it is steamed, even the tough outer petals feature a little nub of tender flesh at the tip where they attach to the heart. You can drag your teeth across the petal to release that tasty bit as you eat your way into the artichoke, where the centre tender petals, or bracts, are completely edible.

When selecting artichokes, look for tightly packed petals with fresh green colour. A few blemishes on the outer petals are okay. Artichokes dry out quickly, so buy them just before using them. If you must store them, wrap them in a thin towel and tuck them inside a plastic bag. Don’t trim or wash them until you are ready to cook them.

You can properly trim an artichoke with just a few steps and common kitchen tools. Using a serrated knife, slice off about one to one-and-a-half inches of the petals to create a flat top.

Then, using scissors, trim away any remaining thorny tips from the petals, working your way around the vegetable. Trim off the stem at the base so it can stand up by itself. Next, begin gently spreading the petals, starting with the outer ones and working your way toward the centre.

If your artichoke is mature, it may have purple, thorny petals inside. If it is younger, it may have light greenish-yellow petals. Gently twist and pull away the petals at the very centre until the furry choke is revealed. Then, using a spoon (a serrated grapefruit spoon is the perfect tool), scrape away the furry choke until the heart is revealed. You can then run the artichokes under cold water to rinse away any furry bits and clean the petals. If you are ready to stuff or steam at this point, go ahead. If not, place the artichokes in a bowl of lemon water – cut petal side down – to prevent browning. (Some people recommend rubbing the cut edges with lemon, but that never worked very well for me.) If they do brown, don’t worry. It doesn’t affect their flavour.

To stuff the artichokes, I turned to my mother’s simple combination of Italian breadcrumbs, minced garlic and olive oil, but tweaked it a bit by adding anchovy paste, lemon zest and crushed red pepper flakes, too. When you’re ready to stuff the artichoke, shake out any water that may have accumulated inside it and place it on a clean plate. Then, using a teaspoon or your fingers, add a bit of stuffing to each leaf, starting on the outside and working your way in. You can lightly fill the centre, as well.

Now, you’re ready to steam the artichoke. There are two common methods: on the stove top and in the oven. Both require a lidded pot and call for about an inch of water in the pot to create steam. If you have stems, peel them with a vegetable peeler and throw them into the pot, as well. They’re delicious, too.

I prefer to steam them in the oven for a moist-on-the-inside, crunchy-on-top result. If you prefer them moister, try the stovetop method. It can be difficult to nail the exact cooking time needed for artichokes, because how long you boil, steam or bake depends on the maturity of the vegetable, its size, freshness and even when it was harvested. The telltale sign that it is done? When one of the tough outer petals releases easily when given a gentle tug.

If you put a steamed artichoke in front of the uninitiated, they may be hesitant to grab that first petal. It is a messy proposition for even experienced artichoke eaters, so gather napkins. Then, dig in by using your fingers; grab hold of an outer petal and pull it away from the artichoke. Use your bottom teeth to scrape the stuffing and any tender artichoke flesh away. (If the artichoke is steamed and not stuffed, serve it with a dipping sauce, such as a favourite vinaigrette or melted butter and lemon or an aioli, dipping the fat end of the petal before eating.)

Discard the petals at the side of your plate or in a separate dish. As you work your way into the centre, the petals may become more tender and you can eat them whole. Once you reveal the heart, divide it and eat it with a fork, or save it and the steamed stems to slice and toss into a salad or a frittata.

As I made mine, I hesitated to eat the heart for just a second. The heart was always my mother’s to claim. That was just understood.

STUFFED ARTICHOKES

Stuffing and steaming whole fresh artichokes is a great way to dig into a vegetable that can seem a bit forbidding with its tightly closed, thorny petals.

Simply slice off those prickly tips, gently remove the furry choke at its centre, generously tuck flavourful stuffing into each petal, then steam it until tender. Once you get the vegetable trimming and filling technique down, you can experiment with seasonings. Adding anchovy paste or minced capers to the filling ramps up its flavour, for example. Keep in mind that smaller, fresher artichokes will steam faster.

It can be difficult to nail the exact cooking time for artichokes because how long they need to cook depends on the maturity of the vegetable, its size, freshness and even when it is harvested. This recipe is for large artichokes, at least 10 ounces. If you have smaller ones, you will need less stuffing and probably less cooking time, so check smaller artichokes about 15 minutes earlier.

Make Ahead: The artichokes can be trimmed up to one day in advance and refrigerated, petal side down, partially submerged in a bowl of lemon water.

Storage Notes: Stuffed artichokes can be wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerated for up to three days. To freeze a cooked stuffed artichoke, wrap it in plastic wrap and then foil, and freeze for up to three months. Defrost in the refrigerator for 24 hours and place on the counter for about one hour, then reheat, covered, in a 300-degree oven for about 20 minutes, sprinkling it with one teaspoon or so of oil or water after 10 minutes.

INGREDIENTS

One large lemon

Two large fresh artichokes

Two cups Italian breadcrumbs

One-and-a-half cups finely grated Romano cheese, pecorino Romano cheese or Parmesan cheese

Two large cloves garlic, minced

Half teaspoon red pepper flakes

Half teaspoon table salt

Three-quarter cup virgin olive oil

Two teaspoons anchovy paste

One bay leaf

DIRECTIONS

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat to 400 degrees.

Add water to a bowl large enough to hold the two artichokes. Zest the lemon to get about one teaspoon. Then, halve the lemon and squeeze the juice into the water. Do not discard the zested halves.

Using a serrated knife, cut off one to one-and-a-half inches from the top of an artichoke to remove the thorny tips, trimming off any remaining prickly tips on the lower petals with a knife or scissors.

Also, remove any tough little petals near the stem.

Using a serrated or chef’s knife, cut the stem off the artichoke flush with the base so that the vegetable can stand upright. If the detached stem is one-and-a-half inches or longer, trim away any tough parts and peel it with a vegetable peeler. (You will add the stems to the pot when you steam the stuffed artichokes.)

Gently force open the petals of each artichoke, spreading the larger ones out first and then the tighter inner ones. Using your fingers and a spoon (a serrated grapefruit spoon works well), remove any inner thorny or purple petals and then scrape away the fuzzy choke.

Place the trimmed artichoke petal side down and the peeled stems in the bowl of lemon water to prevent browning. Repeat to clean the second artichoke.

TO MAKE THE STUFFING

In a large bowl, stir together the breadcrumbs, cheese, garlic, pepper flakes, salt and lemon zest until combined. Place olive oil in a measuring cup and add the anchovy paste, if using, stir to combine as best you can. Pour the olive oil mixture over the breadcrumb mixture and stir until it resembles wet sand, adding more oil if needed. Taste, and season with more pepper flakes or salt, if desired.

Transfer one of the artichokes to a large plate. Open each petal with your fingers and, using your fingers and/or a small spoon, press the stuffing down toward the base of the artichoke. Once the outside petals are filled, lightly fill the centre as well. Keep going around the artichoke, filling every nook and cranny.

Gather any crumbs on the plate and add them to the artichoke, as well. Repeat with the second artichoke. In a Dutch oven or heavy-bottomed pot with a lid, pour enough of the lemon water to come about one inch up the sides.

Add a bay leaf and the zested, juiced lemon halves to the pot. (If you do not have a lidded pot, you can cover with aluminium foil.) Carefully place the artichokes in the water. It’s okay if there is space left in the pot, but the more room you give the artichokes, the more they will expand and flatten as they steam.

Cover the pot tightly with the lid, being careful not to press down on the artichokes, and steam in the oven for one-and-a-half hours, or until the outer stuffing is slightly browned and crisping and an outer artichoke petal or two releases easily when tugged.

Uncover the artichokes and let them cool on the stove top for about 10 minutes. Using tongs and/or a slotted spoon, transfer the artichokes to a platter. Slice the stems into rounds and add them to the plates or reserve them to eat later.

Serve warm, with a bowl on the side for discarded petals.

VARIATION

If you prefer to steam your artichokes on the stove top, stuff them and put them in the Dutch oven or a heavy-bottom pot with the lemon water and bay leaf as directed above.

Turn the heat to high and bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low, cover and steam for about one hour, checking every 15 minutes or so to add a bit more water as needed to prevent scorching. The artichokes are done when the large outer petals can be easily pulled off.