Artichokes Part 2: Stuffed
My grandmother didn’t need the recipe card I brought to her kitchen. She only needed the four fat artichokes. On the TV on the table, Spain’s soccer team was raining goals on Italy’s. She spoke over the announcers, giving me instructions verbatim from the tucked-away card. Verbatim minus the mistakes. The woman who wrote the recipe, my grandmother’s mom, learned Italian and Hungarian before English.
I was chopping parsley and garlic with a curved blade. Shaped like a tall “C,” like a half-moon, the Italian mezzaluna has a sharp outer lip that, holding the grips, you rock back and forth over herbs or aromatics or whatever you want to cut to pieces. Mezzaluna means “half-moon.” A standard chef’s knife is more efficient but less fun.
Before using the mezzaluna, I had used a dinner knife and scissors to undress the artichokes. A small percentage of an artichoke is edible. You have to work hard for those few bites. When you’ve got your four fat artichokes, you must then trim away the outer parts, rub the slippery inner parts with lemon (so they don’t brown), scrape out the fuzzy choke, and cook the flesh for a good half-hour. Artichokes are also expensive. You’re paying $10 and 90 minutes for the meat of a thistle, which doesn’t really have much of a taste.
Stuffed artichokes are different. My grandmother tucks a mixture of bread crumbs, cheese, herbs, and spices behind each of the leaves. When the artichoke is cooked and on your plate, you pull away an inedible leaf and hold it horizontally like a boat on calm water. You then scrape your front teeth along the inside of the leaf, picking up the fragrant and cheesy bread crumbs and then the wedge of artichoke meat at the leaf’s base. Or you can flip the leaf and use your bottom teeth. (I prefer this second way.)
As you go, the artichoke becomes more and more leafless. Eventually the leaves are gone and the party would seem to be over, but no. There’s the heart. Though no breadcrumbs coat the heart’s curves, it is unquestionably the best part of the artichoke. Usually, I can’t wait. I take a knife to the last dozen leaves and cut the heart free. It has an oily, vegetal taste and your teeth slide through it like butter. But these four hearts were still uncooked and cloistered in leaves. By the time Spain had scored its first goal, I had scored off the artichokes’ thorns and tips.
The artichokes cleaned, my grandmother put them in bowl with lemon water. She directed me, and I chopped parsley and garlic with a mezzaluna. (“Go after that garlic!”) My grandfather came in and made fun of me for shaking my hips while chopping. I’m just really excited about artichokes, I said. I had never used a mezzaluna, but now I have on in my kitchen drawer. My grandparents gave me their spare. When the parsley was in pieces and I had sufficiently gotten after the garlic, we made the bread crumb mixture.
The recipe card still hadn’t seen the kitchen’s yellow light. Into the leaves went the fragrant bread crumbs, and into a cavernous pan went the artichokes. Covered, they simmered in a quarter-inch of water for three-quarters of an hour. The timer went off, and I went with my grandfather to check on the chokes. With a small tug, a leaf melted away form the bulb. A scrape, a swallow, a flash of childhood memories.