Artichokes are a deceptive vegetable. Their prickly and tough exterior makes them look not only inedible, but a bit dangerous to handle. Underneath those sharp and rough leaves, however, is a sweet and tender treat that is worth excavating. Left alone on the stalk, the artichoke morphs into an elaborate flower that looks a bit like a peacock with purple plumes. I often grow them in my side yard and leave the later harvest to flower because they are so pretty. If you pick them early enough, however, or purchase them at the farmer's market or store (and you can find them everywhere this time of year) you get something that is both earthy and sweet. Such a great way to start spring.
My mother has always made giant stuffed artichokes for Easter dinner. Her large full chokes are truly gorgeous to behold -- like enormous desert flowers filled with bread crumb pollen -- and even more delightful to eat. But because I am lazy, I rarely make this dish. Filling each leaf of an artichoke seems a tedious task. And, although I love to spend long dinners leisurely making my way through a giant artichoke, my children and husband don't have the patience to slowly nibble the meat from the edge of each leaf. I therefore came up with a compromise recipe: keep the stuffing, but ditch the tiresome preparation and elongated eating period. This makes everyone happy.
In my version, I use medium-sized artichokes, trimming off all the hard outer leaves and chopping off the top. I cook them halfway in a pot of water and then finish them off on the grill. Trimmed and halved, you're left with the perfect receptacle for a dollop of stuffing with the added bonus that almost the entire vegetable is now edible.
Like my mother, I use bread crumbs, Parmesan cheese and parsley in my stuffing, but I've also added a few other ingredients. Because the intense heat of the grill caramelizes the natural sugars of the artichoke, I wanted to include a salty component to the stuffing. I have therefore added cooked pancetta to the mix, which really helps highlight the vegetable's natural sweet flavors, along with a little mint to liven things up.
Grilling is the easy part. Just lay the artichokes leaf-side down on indirect heat and cover for about 20 minutes. I tried flipping a few over and the stuffing held in all but one. That said, they turn out wonderfully if you just leave them alone as well.
The final product is something you can eat with normal bites. No more gnawing off edges for impatient kids and husbands, although plenty of sweet artichoke flavor for everyone.
Grilled Stuffed Artichokes
Makes: 16 artichoke halves
8 medium artichokes
½ cup fresh bread crumbs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup pancetta or bacon
2 garlic cloves
2 Tbsp chopped Italian parsley
1 Tbsp chopped mint
6 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 Tbsp water or white wine
Dash of salt and pepper
1. Wash the artichokes and then trim off the top prickly edges, about 1/2-inch from the top down.
2. Fill a large pot ¾ full with water and squeeze the juice from one lemon into the pot, tossing in the actual squeezed lemon at the end. Add 1 Tbsp salt to the water.
3. Remove the outer leaves of the artichoke until you get to the lighter and more tender underleaves.
4. One by one, slice the artichokes in half and core out the furry part above the heart. Place each one in the pot of water when you are done. Be sure to place each artichoke half in the water as soon as you have finished cutting and trimming it, or else it will start to brown in the air.
5. Once all the chokes are trimmed, halved and defurred, bring the covered pot of water to a boil.
6. Turn off the heat once you gain a rapid boil and then let the artichokes sit in the covered pot for 5-7 minutes.
7. Remove the artichokes from the water and drain. Press a paper towel against them to try to gently press out any excess water.
8. Place the artichokes in a large baking pan, cut side up, and drizzle 3 tablespoons of oil on top along with the zest of your remaining lemon as well as that lemon's juice. Flip the artichokes over, and then cover and refrigerate the pan until ready to use. You can make these up to a day ahead of time.
9. About a half hour before you're ready to grill, cut the pancetta or bacon into small cubes and sauté with the garlic in 1 Tbsp olive oil until crispy.
10. Place your bread crumbs, cooked pancetta and garlic, parsley, mint, remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, Parmesan cheese, and water or white wine in a food processor along with a dash of salt and pepper. Pulse until everything is thoroughly chopped and combined.
11. Turn the artichokes over so they are once again cut-side up and gently press a small mound of stuffing into each cavity. Top with a sprinkle of kosher or sea salt.
12. Grill each artichoke on indirect heat for about 20 minutes, or until ready.
Note: For fresh bread crumbs, just place two slices of bread (I use the ends) in a food processor and pulse about ten times.