Stuffed Artichokes with Italian-style Dressing

Spring has come! And here is a bowl of one of my favorite spring buds. No jaunty jonquils, irises or tulips here. We’re talking thistles — to wit, artichokes, the green, spiny, tight yet tender, buds of the thistle plant. Artichokes are much beloved in our house, even more so after we discovered the delicious and therapeutic drink one makes by simply boiling the ‘chokes to prepare them for the plate (see Artichoke “Tea”). I was first enticed to make artichokes at home by Patricia Ballard’s “Artichokes Italian” recipe. It was an instant favorite, and is still the first artichoke meal we have when the new season’s crop first appears. It is quintessential San Francisco-style Italian — fresh ingredients mixed with seafood and cured meats in a piquant sauce. Served with a San Francisco sourdough to catch the addictive dressing, and a bottle of your favorite pinot noir, it is the perfect meal to welcome spring.

To make a vegetarian version, I would double the amount of mushrooms, and substitute 1/2 cup diced firm tofu for the tuna, allowing tofu to marinate with the vegetables.

(adapted from “Wine in Everyday Cooking”)
Marinade for Dressing:
1 cup olive oil
1/2 cup red-wine vinegar
1/4 cup water
1 TBL. sea salt
1 tsp. raw sugar
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried basil
1/2 tsp. dried thyme
1 tsp. dry mustard
1/4 tsp. ground black pepper
3 large cloves garlic, finely minced

small head of cauliflower, divided into small florets
1/2 lb. fresh mushrooms, quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced thin

Bring all Marinade ingredients to boil in a large saucepan, and allow to boil over medium-high heat for about 5 minutes. Taste and correct seasoning — it should taste very vinegary and the herbs quite pronounced since this is a vegetable marinade for a dish that will be eaten cool or at room temperature. After 5 minutes, add vegetables and bring back to a boil for no more than 3 minutes (or vegetables will become mushy and unpalatable as they sit in the hot dressing).

Let cool completely, then refrigerate for at least 3-4 hours, but preferably overnight.

Prepare artichokes:
4 medium globe artichokes
1 tsp. sea salt (optional)
1 TBL. olive oil (optional)
couple of lemon slices (optional)

Clean artichokes by soaking in a solution of 1 gallon of water and 1/4 cup of white vinegar for about 2 minutes. Rinse well. Trim tops and side leaves, if desired (this is an aesthetic step and does not affect the final flavor; I like the “petal effect” the untrimmed leaves gives the final dish, but it can be a bit prickly for novice artichoke diners so I would trim them if serving for company).

In large dutch oven or 16 qt. soup pot, place artichokes stem side down in water that comes half-way up the sides of the vegetables. If you have no intention of using the cooking liquid as a “tea” (benefits of artichoke “tea”), you can season the water with the optional ingredients. Bring water to a boil, then turn heat down to medium and simmer for 30-45 mnutes, or until the base is tender when pierced with a fork. Remove from water and drain upside-down in colander.

If using cooking liquid as a beverage, strain carefully and enjoy as a hot or cool beverage.

When artichokes have cooled, spread leaves open and remove spiny interior leaves surrounding the hairy center “choke.” Using a small teaspoon, gently scrape out the choke to create a vessel for the dressing. Artichokes can be cooked ahead, refrigerated, and brought to room temperature 30 minutes before serving, or while the Dressing is completed.

Finish the Dressing:
1/2 cup green or black olives, halved
10 slices of prosciutto or 12 slices of salami
1 7 oz, can of tuna in olive oil (do not drain)

Combine marinated vegetables, olives, cured meat and tuna. Stir through carefully and set aside at least 30 minutes.

Traditionally, these artichokes are served in wide shallow bowls, such as a pasta bowl. I prefer a deep bowl like the cafe au lait bowl in the photo below because it supports the stuffed artichoke and has the added advantage of allowing the dressing to pool on the bottom and season the artichoke heart as you feast your way to the bottom. Spoon the Dressing into the center of each artichoke. Add any remaining dressing around each stuffed vegetable, and drizzle the remaining marinade between the artichoke leaves. Serves 4 as a first course, or 2 as an entree.

Best served with a tangy sourdough loaf, but any good artisan bread will do. We found it helps to begin with the inner leaves of the artichoke, and eat your way to the outside. You’ll find each leaf base is already “dipped” in the savory Dressing marinade.

One of our favorite uses for left-over Dressing is to hollow out the bottom of a small baguette or other hoagie-type roll, fill it with the Dressing (and cold cuts, if you want a real carnivore’s delight), then encase it with plastic wrap for at least an hour — the oil-vinegar dressing soaks the bread to create a muffaletta-type sandwich. For a less-messy option, combine Dressing with cooked tubular or small shell pastas, or brown rice for a quick lunch salad.