For 29 years, I haven’t known what to do with artichokes. This is embarrassing, considering I spent my childhood hooked on them. I’d fight my brothers for the stems when my mom cooked them; invent new methods for peeling the meat off the leaves so I could brag to my cousins—it was always a secret, happy day when artichokes were involved.
They were one of those foods I didn’t know what to make of as a kid. I wasn’t sure if other American kids knew about artichokes, or if they were one of those weirdo vegetables my family phoned in from Sicily. Yes, they were common in stores, but the markets we went to in Bensonhurst were overrun by Sicilians. Aside from Chinese and Russian, Sicilian was about the only language you heard while walking the aisles, picking out fichi d’india or thumbing through barrels of salted cod. We were a far cry from any English-speaking circles, so how could I know whether anyone outside our crazy immigrant bubble knew about artichokes? They were one of those risky foods I was better off not mentioning outside my house.
I didn’t even know they were called artichokes until I noticed them labeled at the market around first grade. Until then, I’d only known them by what my parents called them: carciofi. My mom explained that artichoke was the English word—so all that time, I didn’t even realize I wasn’t speaking English when I talked about them. Thank God I decided to never mention them to friends.
Yet, for all of my love of artichokes, I had no idea how to cook them. I bought a batch the first year I was living on my own, sure that it was simple enough to just wash and boil them. But something went wrong and they were intolerably bitter. I had to throw out the whole pot, too embarrassed to call my mom and ask her what I’d done wrong. This was my favorite secret vegetable—how could I not know how to cook artichokes??
I stayed away from cooking them for a solid seven years after that. That is, until I came face-to-face with a globe artichoke display at Trader Joe’s last week. All the memories of nostalgia, embarrassment, and failure danced around me, just to the right of the avocados. So I finally did it: I threw some into my cart, and at last, called my mom.
This recipe is a hybrid of my mom’s technique and my grandma’s. If she doesn’t boil them, my mom quarters and bakes them with olive oil, salt, and pepper. My grandma stuffed them with garlic and bread crumbs, which I love since you get a little surprise under each leaf.
I’m told that the secret to avoiding bitter artichokes is to eat them fresh. The longer they’ve been hiding in your crisper drawer, the more likely they’ll be bitter. And cook them for a long time! Undercooked artichokes are often bitter and just inedible. Parboiling does the trick if you’re stuffing them.
Baked Artichokes (Carciofi al Forno)
4 globe artichokes
1 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup seasoned Italian breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped
Juice of ½ lemon
salt and pepper to taste
Wash the artichokes and peel off any dark or shriveled leaves from the bottoms. Cut off their stems and set aside.
Open up each artichoke by hitting it upside down (the side opposite the stem) against a hard surface. A cutting board or counter top is perfect. This will loosen the leaves and let you fill the artichokes easily.
Parboil the artichokes and their trimmed stems in a large pot, about 20 minutes. Add a teaspoon of salt to the water once it begins to boil. Remove from heat and set aside.
Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F.
In a small bowl, combine the breadcrumbs, cheese, and garlic. Use a teaspoon to stuff 1/4 of the breadcrumb mixture between the leaves of each parboiled artichoke.
Position the stuffed artichokes in a rectangular loaf pan or other pan that will fit them snugly. Sprinkle with lemon juice, drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt and pepper.
Bake for 45 minutes to 1 hour.