when I grew up in Syria, my mother would bring home 20 artichokes at a time from the market so she could prepare them to store over the winter. All of us in the family had to help her by peeling the outer leaves and cleaning the choke (the fine, silky hairs near the heart of the artichoke). By the time we finished cleaning five or six of the vegetables, the sharp pointed leaves would have punctured our hands several times, so say nothing of our fingers turning dark purple. It was not at all embarrassing because most of our classmates in school would have the same punctures and marks on their hands. We couldn’t complain because my mother did not eat artichokes. All of this preparation and storage was for my father and the children in our family. While we stored as many as we could for winter, during the season we ate artichoke in salads; we ate stuffed artichokes with meat; with herbs; with bread and garlic; with pasta; and on and on.
One food historian maintains that the artichoke originated in North Africa, probably Tunisia, and from there moved to Syria, where the Crusaders picked it up and spread it through Europe, including Italy. Other food historians claim that, because artichokes still grow wild in Sicily, moved from Sicily to Naples and throughout Italy, it definitely originated in Italy. These same historians say that the Crusaders took artichokes to Syria, and not the opposite direction. The Medicis in ancient Italy believed artichokes contained an aphrodisiac, the men would eat them as appetizers before every meal, but they forbade the women from touching them.
Whatever the case may be, they are a very popular vegetable around the Mediterranean, and are used in a different way in each of the countries. My favorite is the marinated artichoke one finds in restaurants in Rome. They are cooked, then left to soak in olive oil, lemon and garlic. They are so tender that one eats every part of the artichoke, stems, leaves, and the choke. I dream about Roman artichokes.
Stuffed Artichoke Cups
8 artichokes, or 8 frozen artichoke bottoms
1 lemon, sliced
4 cloves garlic, sliced
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
1/2 fresh fennel, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 cups frozen sweet pea, thawed
1 cup fresh or frozen diced carrot
1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
1/4 teaspoon turmeric or saffron
1/8 teaspoon chili powder, optional
zest of one lemon
salt and pepper to taste
-Stem the artichokes close to the base. Scoop out the choke and trim the base to form a cup.
-In a heavy pot, bring 8 cups of water, the garlic and the lemon slices to a boil. Drop the artichoke bottoms into the boiling water and cook until tender. Drain and set aside. If you are using frozen artichoke bottoms, defrost and place on the plate.
-Mix the corn starch with 1/4 cup of cold water and set aside. Heat the olive oil in a saucepan. Add the onion, the pepper and the fennel. Sauté the vegetables for couple minutes. Add the corn starch mixture, 6 cups of water, the ginger, the turmeric, the chili powder and the salt. Cook, stirring often, until the sauce is slightly thicken. Remove from the stove and set aside.
-Place the artichoke cups on a shallow plate. Mix the peas and the carrot and spoon into the cups.
-Spoon the onion fennel sauce over the stuffed cups. Grate more fresh ginger on the top and bake in 395 F. degree oven for 30 minutes.