A long, cold winter in upstate New York ends. The rebirth of trees, flowers, wildlife and, of course, the start of a vegetable garden that would flourish all summer long.
Living in a warm tropical climate now, I find the signs of spring too subtle and surreal, so I seek out familiar ingredients to remind me of this beautiful season of renewal.
A favorite spring ingredient is the baby artichoke. We worship these little gems in my famiglia for the few weeks they are available.
In Italia, the artichoke is revered with a wide variety of preparations during their season.
The city of Roma and regions in Tuscany hold entire food festivals to honor this ingredient.
I believe you will begin to understand the passion we Italians have for the artichoke once you taste my Mammina’s classic recipe:
piccoli carciofi ripieni
fresh (approx.10 to 15) whole baby artichokes, cleaned and trimmed
(be sure to check for freshness; the leaves should be green, not dark or discolored*)
1 whole lemon
2 whole eggs
approx. 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup each seasoned breadcrumbs and fresh untoasted bread crumbs (I make mine with day-old dry rustic bread in my food processor)
1 large celery stalk (with leaves)
1 small onion, peeled
1 small can of sliced mushrooms; drained
1 plum tomato
(you can also add 1/4 to 1/2 of a fresh sweet bell peppers chopped, red, yellow or orange to add color and flavor)
1 container or more unsalted chicken stock or vegetable stock (homemade stock is even better)
good splash of white wine
salt and pepper
*Get to know your local grocer or farm stand owner and ask them about the freshness of each ingredient you wish to buy and for tips on cleaning and preparing them; soon they will start showing you what their daily best, freshest items are at each visit!
How To Clean Baby Artichokes:
The key to these is to clean and soak them in a large bowl or sink full of frigid ice water with lemon wedges to stop them from browning. With an artichoke in hand, start removing the tough outer leaves until you reach the tender inside leaves.
Trim the top of the artichoke leaves with a straight cut (about 1/4″ or so off the top.) Cut the stalk off at the base and peel all the stalks and set aside to add to the stuffing mix. Place the cleaned and trimmed artichokes in the acidulated ice water as you go and set them aside.
Place all these ingredients into a large bowl. Add the eggs to this and using a fork, mix loosely and add the fresh untoasted bread crumbs mixing until well combined.
Add some salt and pepper to your personal.
Add the seasoned breadcrumbs to this mixture and combine well.
The final mixture should be sticking together but still look moist, not dry and crumbly (if mixture looks too dry; add a touch of whole milk to moisten and mix well.)
Take an artichoke in hand (dry with a clean dish towel) and placing the top cut side down, smack the artichoke against the counter a few times until you see the leaves loosen up.
Place your fingers into the center and loosen the inner leaves by moving your fingers until you can reach inside the artichoke (you may need to remove just a few of the soft inner leaves to create the space you need to place the stuffing.)
Repeat this process until all are stuffed; then place all the artichokes into a nonstick deep-sided pan, stuffing side down.
Drizzle olive oil into the pan bottom and place on medium-low heat.
Brown the artichokes stem side down (be careful not to let stuffing fall out) and then turn over to stuffing side down and brown for a few minutes. Add a good splash of white wine and let this simmer a bit.
Lower the heat a bit and add the stock to cover the artichokes entirely (stock needs to reach all the outer leaves up to the top of the stuffing.)
Sprinkle some salt and pepper to taste and increase the heat to a slow simmer and braise with the pan lid slightly covering them for about 45 to 55 minutes (if liquid evaporates too quickly, add some water to continue braising) or until the artichokes are fork tender and the leaves come off easily when touched.
Serve them with some of the braising liquid for your enjoyment.
Note: Reserve any extra braising liquid for use in risottos, pasta dishes and meat dishes. Store leftover artichokes in the refrigerator (add some braising liquid to keep them moist and flavorful) or you can freeze them for later use.
Note: Photography provided by Annette L. Venditti