Cooking is sometimes called a labor of love, you have to love to do it, you have to love the whole process, and you have to love to feed people and satisfy them. Lots of love. There’s another type of love and it’s the love you feel because that dish you are making, the aroma, the prep, the taste, the look, all of it combines and fills your soul with someone who has touched your heart. Many times is a person who is still living…and many times it’s a reminder of someone who has left us. This is such a dish for me. Stuffed Artichokes are a very common dish in the Italian-American home. Their origin is somewhere down south, this preparation anyway. In many articles Sicily claims it and in others the people from Naples claim it. Truth be told I’ve never met an Italian-American whose ancestry hails from any of the southern regions that doesn’t make this. It definitely shows up at every Fall thru Winter holiday table. It’s festive and there’s a good amount of work in making them, all worth it. Simply put, they are trimmed, centers are cleaned out, and they are stuffed with any number of breadcrumb combinations, usually the same with some differences from kitchen to kitchen. Before we tackle these amazing “vegetables” let’s discuss what they are. For me, they are as common as apples and chocolate candy but I realize you all didn’t grow up in my home. The ARTICHOKE is the bud of a type of THISTLE plant. They are cut before the flower blossoms and to cook they are braised, steamed, fried, the leaves are scraped against your bottom teeth to release the delicious “meat”, the bottoms are eaten, and the hearts sometimes are used in salads, fried, baked, grilled.
Here is where this Stuffed Artichoke takes on a special meaning for me. Whenever my mom made them and my recipe is close to hers it’s not exact, but when she made them she made sure to connect herself with her late sister Luigina (Jean) Scaramuzzi Clark. You see Aunt Dee Dee (Italian American families have a confusing habit of calling someone 2-4 different names, don’t ask) would add pignoli to her stuffing, and she crowned each stuffed artichoke with a piece of Anchovy and some fennel seeds. My mom would almost say a prayer as she was doing it. “This is how my sister Jean would make then”..over and over again I can hear Mom saying that. It was 51 years ago on October 9, 1964 that my Aunt passed away leaving a husband and 2 children. She was only 39, complications from a surgery. I have a huge family and each Aunt and Uncle were special but Aunt Dee Dee was something just a little more than special. That picture is of her in her home Easter 1959. I think you can see from the picture the loving and fun person she was. I was only 6 when she passed away but I was heartbroken. I’ll say my mom never recovered from losing her sister, nor did the other 6 Scaramuzzi siblings. Aunt Dee Dee let me do things my VERY over protective mom did not, like go around the corner to the store on my own, I know, only 6 but we are talking 1964, very different times. The Italian store, FAZZINO’S was literally in Aunt DeeDee’s backyard. I stayed over their home that summer of 1964, so long ago, it may have only been one night but it was like the best night ever. My cousin Eddie had stacks of horror magazines that he let me pour through, and Aunt DeeDee needed something from the store, it might have been cold cuts so she gave me the money and send me around the corner and watched me go with the list. What a thrill that was, I was a man now !! I guess we had a nice lunch or dinner when Uncle Ed and cousin Joyce were home and that’s where that memory of letting me do something like a big kid ended. Dad picked me up and then it was back to waiting till I was a little older to do that again, but I never forgot my Aunt for giving me that thrill. Only a few short month later she was gone. However I’m sure I speak for my cousins, we’ve never forgotten her and every Oct. 9 I remember, and this one I decided to make the Stuffed Artichokes “her way”….my kitchen tribute to a loved Aunt who is still missed over 50 years later.
Ok…time to cook.
for 4 Time: 2 hours
It would be a lie if I said..so easy..artichokes are a pain in the ass to prep. Don’t ask me for the easy way because Nature is Nature and they are what they are. If they are very prickly you must cut them away with a very sharp knife, trim the bottom and the stem leaves, then smash them onto a hard and flat surface. Then with your hands pry them open. See, it’s really a flower and you can see this as you pry them open. Into the center you go and at the bottom are 2 layers..one if the choke…and it will do just that to you if you don’t remove it. It’s a slightly thorny, needle like fuzz that with a spoon, a Grapefruit spoon best if you have one of them (really, who has them anymore?) scrape it all out, using the spoon and your fingers. The layer under that is the HEART, the prize, to me, one of the BEST TASTING FOODS ON EARTH. The idea here is to stuff down to the choke and fill in randomly the layers of leaves surrounding the choke. It’s random RANDOM random…meaning there’s no symmetry to this. Every leaf doesn’t need to have stuffing on it…you’ll see.
- 4 large artichokes (PREPPED)
- 3/4 cup breadcrumbs
- 1/2 cup grated PECORINO ROMANO
- 2 minced garlic cloves, 2 smashed cloves for the sauce
- 1/2 mashed filet of anchovy, one filet cut in fourths, 1/2 filet for the sauce
- 2 tbs toasted pignoli
- 2 tbs chopped italian flat leaf parsley
- pinch of peperoncino
- 1/2 tsp fennel seeds
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- 1 juiced lemon
- 1/2 cup white wine
- 1/2 cup water
- 1 tbs EUROPEAN butter, if not, use Unsalted.
Mix the breadcrumbs, Pecorino, Garlic, Mashed Anchovy, pignoli, 3/4 of the fennel seeds (give them a little whack with the side of your knife), pinch of salt, a little of the lemon juice and enough Extra Virgin Olive Oil to “moisten” them…careful not to over oil. Fill the artichokes, center first, don’t PACK the crumbs,then the sides. Chokes are all different sizes so you may need more filling, or less. In a heavy bottomed saucepan that will hold all four Stuffed Artichokes, add a few tbs. of the olive oil, add the smashed garlic cloves, then the 1/2 filet of anchovy. Let this saute’ together, then add the water and the wine and the lemon juice. Pinch of salt. Add the artichokes and make sure the liquid comes at least 1/2 way up the chokes.
Top each artichoke with a few fennel seeds and the 1/4 piece of Anchovy. NOW bring to a boil for 5 minutes then reduce the heat to a simmer. Pour some of the cooking liquid over each of the stuffed chokes . Drizzle with olive oil. COVER TIGHTLY making sure there’s no steam escaping, they will steam for 45 minutes minimum. You will check at the 1/2 hour point to make sure there’s still enough liquid in there. Add as needed but don’t bring the liquid to the middle of the chokes this time. Cover again . They should be done by now BUT that’s not foolproof. Try to remove a leaf from one of the chokes. If it easily pulls off, you are done, if not go for 10 minutes more. They should look like this when you remove the cover. The breadcrumbs should have a moist look to them.
Let them sit in this hot pot, COVERED, for 10 minutes. Remove to a serving platter. Bring the pan liquid to a boil then a simmer and let it reduce if it hasn’t already. you may not need to do anything. Remove from the flame and whisk in the butter. A squeeze of lemon. Done. Now Drizzle this over each of the Artichokes. Serve. And at the end of the eating you’ll be left with the PRIZE, the HEART…I was way too excited to take the picture when I got down to it so, pardon the chewed up look of my plate, but you get the idea. BTW, that plate, not my Aunt Luigina’s, but it was another beloved Aunt’s, it was my Aunt Angelina DeSiato Scaramuzzi’s. Food with no history and love is the stuff you eat on the run or when that’s all that is available. In your kitchen…you are in control and I like to good with my relatives all around me, figuratively. They made me happy as a child and their memory continues to make me smile, especially at my kitchen table.