Saturday, May 14, 2011

Best Laid Plans and Stuffed Artichokes

This is the tale of best-laid plans. Once upon a time I had no kids and a huge vegetable garden. Then I had babies and thought about simplifying my life. I decided to plant the back half of the garden with perennials and grow less food. These were the days of stealing 10 minutes here, twenty minutes there; parking babies in the shade or wearing them on my back while I shoveled and giving them shovels and pails and setting them the task of finding worms, many worms. I was proud of the accomplishment of growing anything at that point, but it wasn't easy to negotiate what was needed to tend to the garden properly. Weeds were rampant, lettuce was bolting and tomatoes were flopping before I could get out there tie them up. It made perfect sense. Much of the back half was fallow anyway because it had been impossible to keep up, so this would solve all problems.

I started with about a fourth of the space the first year of the plan, thinking I would mosey along the next few years until the food part was manageable. I put in a lovely little square with a sand cherry and giant patch of yarrow. A beautiful yellow rose commemorating our Yarrow Rose's weaning and loads of plants gathered from my garden club's annual plant swap. Lovely.

Then everything changed.

Before the snow melted on year two, I had read Michael Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma and Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and would never eat the same way again. Or garden the same way again either. If you haven't read either of these missives, I highly recommend them. For me they were eye-openers and inspiration.

Now that square of flowers stands as an island sandwiched between the Bay of Tomatoes and the Strait of Peas and Zucchini with a shoreline of spinach and storage onions. I'm not fretting because flowers bring bees and butterflies and other pollinators (and are pretty), although I do have fantasies about digging it all up and making room for more food. I could have a rockin' corn crop over there. Or edamame. I love edamame. Or move the artichokes out of the greenhouse and into the field like my gardening hero Elliot Coleman up in Maine. He does that.

I am hugely fortunate that after having such an epiphany about the links between climate change and the food industry that I live in such a place and have the life where I can actually take action. And that I can do it by combining two things that I love - activism and gardening? So super cool.

I walk around blissed out these days of spring. My hands are in the dirt. When I'm seeking inspiration at dinnertime, I can take a walk out the door. Last night I combined our own carrots, spinach, leeks and asparagus with locally grown shitake mushrooms and some Vermont-made creme fraiche stirred into risotto. It was wonderful. But that's not the subject today. It's spring and in our house, that mean stuffed artichokes once a week until they aren't feeling totally special anymore, at which time, we bid them farewell until next spring. Except this year we're growing artichokes in the greenhouse so we should get an encore season in August or September, we hope. For everyone else who doesn't get the encore, hurry and make this fantastic recipe that I've adapted from Grandma Gerarda, Frank's paternal grandmother who let us garden the other half of her yard when we lived in the city. She died in 1994, but not before teaching me an awful lot about Italian cooking, gardening and sharing what you know!

Stuffed Artichokes

For the Artichokes:
Choose 4 Large Artichokes that are as free of dark spots as you can. Cut off stems, with a large knife or kitchen scissor, trim the tops of the leaves so you don't have the pointy parts and it is easier to stuff. Parboil in a big pot of water until you can pull a leaf out without great resistance, about 20-30 minutes. Remove from water and place in bowl to cool. Reserve water.

For the Filling:
4 large cloves garlic
1 large onion
6-8 button or crimini mushrooms
3/4 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup pecorino romano cheese, grated fine (or parmesan if you prefer)
Olive oil
Salt and pepper

Place garlic and onion in food processor and pulse 3-4 times, then add mushrooms and process until the veggies are minced. Heat oil in a frying pan and add minced veggies. Season with salt and pepper (not too much salt because the cheese is salty.) Saute on low until the mixture is very aromatic and soft. Turn the heat off and let cool. Once cool, preheat the oven to 350. Add breadcrumbs and cheese and mix thoroughly. One at a time, take each artichoke and put some filling into the spaces between the leaves. I generally stuff the bottom five or six rows, gently pulling each leaf away, dropping a generous pinch of filling in. Press the filling down into the leaves. Continue this process until you have used all your filling and the artichokes have become very fat. Place (squeeze) them in a pie plate or other pyrex baking dish. Ladle a couple scoops of the reserved water into the bottom of the baking dish. Cover with foil and bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

You can melt some butter for dipping. And voila. Put a giant bowl for the discarded leaves in the middle of the table. If you've never eaten artichokes before, simply eat the filling off the leaf, the turn it upside down and scrape the fleshy part off with your teeth. For the leaves that don't have the filling, just the scraping will do. When you get down to the choke, take a knife and scrape away the hairs to reveal the best part: the heart. Dip that in butter and enjoy!!

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