By Karl Wells
I have many friends who cook very well. Some (not many) cook or cooked professionally. Most became excellent cooks simply because they love cooking. Like, my friend Gabriel “Gabe” Trance. Gabe is a friend from Brooklyn, New York. My husband Larry and I, and Gabe and his husband Paul Benz, have been friends for several years. Gabe’s ancestors emigrated to North America from southern Italy. When it comes to Italian and Italian American food, Gabe knows a thing or two about la cucina Italia. Like most who love to cook, Gabe enjoys talking about cooking. His descriptions of the meals he prepares convinced me that he’d be a great cooking instructor. Might he, I wondered, let me watch him cook sometime to pick up a few pointers?
One day Gabe heard me say that the only artichokes I’d ever eaten came from a can or a bottle. He was shocked. He looked at me like I’d said I’d never tasted an apple in my life “You’ve nevah cooked fresh artichokes?” he stated in his wonderful Brooklyn accent. “No,” I said, “as a matter of fact, I wouldn’t know where to begin.” “Well, that’s it! I’ll teach you how to cook artichokes.” And he did.
A few days later I was in Gabe’s kitchen. He had all the ingredients laid out, including a cutting board for each of us, as well as knives. The artichokes were on the small side. Gabe wasn’t happy about that because there’s less flesh to be enjoyed on small artichokes. But as he pointed out, the lesson was mainly about teaching me the technique of cooking artichokes. And, by the way, as Gabe also pointed out, this was “just one technique.” There are several more. We were making slow cooked or braised artichokes on Gabe’s stove.
There’s a bit of fussing to be done when working with fresh artichokes. It’s not as simple as just washing them and popping them in the oven. There’s painstaking preparation to be done to make them an edible treat. The stems must be cut off and the base of the artichoke trimmed to make it a perfect flat bottom, allowing the artichoke to be presented vertically. The top must be cut off and the whole globe massaged and gently prised open to accommodate stuffing.
The most finicky part of the preparation was using kitchen shears to cut off, as straight as possible, the pointy tips of each outside leaf. As I cut one leaf, after another, after another, I felt a bit like Mr. Rogers or Mr. Dress-up doing a little construction project for the kiddies. Turns out it was worth it for visual effect alone. The final touch of eye appeal came when a stuffing consisting of crumbs, tiny diced bits of artichoke stems, garlic and several herbs and spices is sprinkled into the slits and slots of the artichoke and crowned with the powerhouse flavourings: fresh butter and extra virgin olive oil. Finally, after placing all the fully dressed artichokes in a covered pot with a little liquid, we braised them on a burner turned to low for at least three hours. The result was sensational. I should also mention how wonderfully exotic they looked when served with some of the cooking juices. Grazie Gabe!
If you’d like to try Gabe’s method for braised stuffed artichokes, please follow the recipe below.
Gabe’s Stovetop Stuffed Artichokes
6 fresh artichokes (big is best, as long as they’re fresh)
6 large cloves garlic (finely chopped)
Stems of 6 artichokes, peeled and diced small
Fresh lemon juice (to prevent blackening of artichokes)
1 cup fresh or Italian seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup fresh parsley
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp nutmeg
6 tbsp butter
1/4 cup olive oil
First trim your artichokes. Taking each in turn, place the artichoke on its side, hold it in a slight squeeze, and with a sharp chef’s knife neatly slice off the pointed top, as well as the entire stem, leaving a smooth flat bottom to allow artichoke to stand vertically in your cooking pot. Save the stems, discard the artichoke tops. Drizzle each artichoke with lemon juice to prevent blackening.
Using a vegetable peeler, peel each of the cut-off stems to remove the exterior skin. Slice off the tough heel. Next dice the stems into small dice. Reserve in a bowl. Drizzle with a little lemon juice to prevent blackening.
Peel and finely chop the garlic cloves, having removed the bitter tasting green germ in the centre if present. Set chopped garlic aside.
Stand the artichokes and, using the palm of your hand, press down on their tops with moderate to strong pressure to open them – they should somewhat resemble a flower on the verge of opening. To assist in this, hold the artichoke (top up) under cold running water. Using both thumbs gently push the artichoke leaves away from the centre. Shake the artichokes dry.
Next, using sharp scissors or kitchen shears, turn each artichoke and, row by row, snip the sharp tips from each individual leaf. Cut each straight across the top.
Now using your thumb and index finger work them down through the middle of the artichoke and firmly pinch the stem end of the tiny core of leaves at the centre of the choke. Pull them out and discard. This will make room for the stuffing.
In a small bowl combine the breadcrumbs, salt, pepper, nutmeg, diced garlic, and parsley. Toss the mixture using two spoons.
Divide the diced artichoke stems into six equal portions. Fill each artichoke centre with a portion. Then sprinkle just enough of the bread stuffing mixture into each to cover the artichoke dice.
Using the remaining stuffing, sprinkle it in the crevices between the artichoke leaves and the main body of the artichoke. Use your finger to force them open temporarily to make room for the sprinkled crumb mixture. Place the artichokes in a stovetop pot large enough to accommodate them.
Pour enough water or vegetable stock into the pot to reach the level of one inch (25 mm). Then place a pat of butter on top of each artichoke. Drizzle extra virgin olive oil over all.
Bring the water or stock to a moderate boil. Then turn heat to low. Cover pot and cook at a low simmer for at least three hours. To check for doneness, see if you can pull a leaf out of an artichoke without effort. If so, they’re ready to eat. To serve, place artichokes into individual bowls and ladle a little of the cooking liquid over and around each artichoke.
To eat, use your fingers to pluck out individual leaves. While still grasping it, place the leaf inside your mouth. Then scrape it clean of its flesh, stuffing, and flavour by pulling it out again between your front teeth, using your teeth as scrapers. Discard the spent leaf and pluck another until they’re all gone, except the meaty choke part of vegetable at the centre. Dine on this using a spoon and knife. Buon appetito!