By Elizabeth Umbro Cavallaro
Artichokes originated in the Mediterranean region… namely Italy, Spain, Jerusalem, Tunisia circa 77 AD. Believe it or not, the artichoke was a faux pas which pulled itself from the earth and frightened the farmers. They were perplexed as to what it was and what to do with it. Since nothing went to waste at that time, the people discovered, explored and experimented new ways of cooking this monstrous looking plant. I am sure they had many disasters. They enjoyed them with vinegar, honey and cumin. Actually, it is the flower bud of the thistle plant of the sunflower family. Artichokes are one of the oldest known foods dating to antiquity. The belief was that this plant was an aphrodisiac, which was attributed to being effective in securing the birth of a boy. The Greeks and the Romans considered artichokes a delicacy.
The name derives from the Italian word… articiocco and articolos, which translates to a pine cone. The plant spreads to a cover area of about six feet and a height of four feet. If the plant was not picked, it would become the most beautiful flower of a violet blue. They are grown in perennial culture for five to ten years. Each crop is cut back several inches below the soil surface to stimulate new growth. This operation is called stumping.
According to legend, the first artichoke was symbolized by Cynara, a lovely Greek girl spotted by Zeus. He captured and seduced her while his wife Hera was away. He made her a Goddess and brought her to Olympus. At this time, Cynara missed her family and ran away. Upon her return, Zeus was angered and sent her back to earth to transform her into an ugly plant that we now know as the artichoke.
As I look back in time, my fondest recollection of my childhood was the holiday when my mother prepared her famous stuffed artichokes. While she sipped on her morning coffee, she began to get out all her old mixing bowls. I sat watching her while eating my bowl of oatmeal. It was the breakfast of yesteryear. We never had bacon, sausage, pancakes or French toast. Oatmeal was rib-sticking and warm on those cold wintry mornings. It was now perfect because it started to snow and I knew that a big holiday was upon us.
The best part of my life was wintertime with blustery days and nights. Many past winters we had three feet of snow; perfect for snowball fights and making caves and tunnels to hide from our mothers when they called us in for lunch. We were never hungry. We played in the snow for hours. We donned our heavy jackets, two pairs of socks, scarves and woolen hats pulled down over our ears. I had high boots that were handed down from my sisters; they were always too big for me. I did not care. We were never cold. There were no cars on our street so we had lots of room to play. No one owned a car or knew how to drive.
Our love of food and its preparation held us together. I remember coming home from school to break off a piece of bread hot from the bakery down the street. There was nothing like it. Over the years, my siblings and I tried to keep the family traditions alive. Good food and wine was our custom. I had my wine in a tiny little glass diluted with water. I loved it.
Three cups of fresh bread crumbs
One cup of parmesan cheese
One half cup of chopped parsley
Twelve cloves of chopped garlic (yes 12)
Two tablespoons of Italian seasoning
One teaspoon of black pepper
One quarter cup of olive oil
Do not add salt
In bowl measure out bread crumbs, cheese, parsley, garlic, seasoning, pepper and oil. If too dry add more olive oil, if too wet add more bread crumbs.
Select tight leafed artichokes in a globe shape. Cut off stem for a flat bottom. Cut one inch off top. With scissors snip off thorns. Pull off two layers of leaves on bottom. With fingers pull each leaf apart leaving a cavity for the filling. Run under cold water and face upside down on a dish towel to dry. Tap all water out. Hold artichoke over mixture and fill in between each leaf. Lay artichokes in sauce pan. To prevent these from falling over, scrunch tin foil in between each. Pour water in pan about one quarter up to artichokes. Do not pour water over artichokes. Pour a sprinkle of olive oil and parmesan cheese over all. Cover and simmer on low heat for about two hours. Check water every half hour; if dissipated add more. Do not pour water over artichokes. For doneness pull biggest leaf to taste. Take out of water and let rest for a few hours. Every part of the artichoke is edible but not the hairy fibers in the bottom. This is the choke. You really will choke on this part; I kid you not. Take the challenge. Once you have mastered the artichoke preparation, you will make this delicious treat again. Enjoy!
Elizabeth Umbro Cavallaro was born in East Boston, left at 23 years old and now reside in Lynnfield. Cavallaro loves to write nostalgic tales with a little history and recipe, her articles are free.