Sunday, 5 January 2014

Flowers Full of Goodness

Carciofi Ripieni di Couscous alla Menta, Prezzemolo & Pomodoro Secco
Steamed Artichokes, stuffed with Couscous, Mint, Parsley, Shallots and Sun-Dried Tomatoes.

You all know how much I love artichokes and especially as Nina at the market hall told me these were from "The Old Country", of course they had to come back home with me to the safety of my kitchen, where they could be taken care of accordingly... because this Sicilian guy knows how to handle these pretty blossoms. They need a bit of care and attention- not some slap-dash dipping or any of that kind of treatment. Not from me anyway! They are not just decorative- they are delicious- and so healthy!

I think it is such a shame that so many people are either afraid to approach cooking or eating artichokes. Mostly this is because of the simple reason that the only 2 options they can imagine are either dipping the steamed leaves into some greasy concoction or eating the processed hearts from a jar, on a pizza or in a salad. 

Stuffed artichokes are nothing new- in fact, they have been around for years and the kind that I like, stuffed with bread crumbs, are a typical dish beck from the days of the great depression, when after the war, apart from the few greens that people managed to grow or pick out in the wilds... crumbs of bread were possibly all that many people had. 

The thing is... that it tastes GOOD, that it makes SENSE, because the bread soaks up all of the flavor of the artichoke, it fills you up and it makes eating them so much more enjoyable and worthwhile. Are you one of the people that think "what is the point of scraping that bit of pulp off a tough leaf?". Then it is you I am talking to. Does dipping it into a pungent oily dip make it that much better? Or could you, to be honest, just dip a cracker in there and have done with all the mess on your plate?

Enough preaching! I am not bitching either! I just want to try to open your eyes, your minds and to broaden your horizons a little. This evening I decided to try something a little different and replaced the bread crumbs with couscous. It was an experiment, but it worked out really well! it is easy to do and truly delicious- and the result is a much more satisfying eating experience- trust me! Let me tell you how and maybe you will give it a go next time!

To make these, I cut off the top third of the artichokes, right down to the part where the leaves were thick and juicy... it is pointless leaving the ends of the leaves on that you can't eat anyway, plus having a cut, exposed end to the leaf allows the steam in and allows the artichoke to cook more quickly. I trimmed the stem down and kept only the tender part attached, but peeled away the tough, fibrous skin. I then cut them in in half and removed the "choke" at the heart of 
the artichokes using a teaspoon- all of those fine fibers in there have to go! Otherwise you will indeed choke on them if you try to eat them! They do have their English name for a reason you know!

Supposedly, you need to dip the cut surface of the artichoke in lemon juice immediately, to stop it discoloring and oxidizing... but let me be frank with you... by the time your artichokes are steamed, they will turn olive-green anyway and you will not tell the difference. At all. There- I've said it! This is just my opinion and you definitely won't do any harm by using lemon juice... in fact, there are plenty of recipes where it really tastes great on artichokes that I love very much!
But not this one ;-)

To make the filling, I finely chopped one shallot for all 3 artichokes, but added a good handful each of mint and parsley and one finely chopped sun-dried tomato for each artichoke. I added a handful of couscous for each of the artichokes and stirred everything together, seasoned it simply with salt, pepper and a hint of nutmeg. I then carefully fanned the leaves of the artichokes out a little and spooned the couscous/herb mixture inside. You could very well add a little finely chopped garlic which would taste terrific- but again, that is a personal preference that I will leave you to decide.

I finished each one off with a nice little mound in the center of the heart, where the choke used to be, then placed them on the steam rack of my new steaming pan, drizzled them with olive oil and let them steam away for 40-45 minutes until they were tender. By that time the couscous was steamed, fluffy and full of the flavor of the artichokes, herbs, shallot and tomatoes. If you don't have a steamer, you can simply place the artichokes carefully in a saucepan or frying pan and fill it up with water to about half their depth and cook them with the lid on. No problem. Just keep an eye on them from time to time to make sure you have enough water in the pan and that it doesn't completely evaporate away.

And how do you eat these beauties? Well, the way that I did, was that I first cut away the stalk and enjoyed that as it was lovely and tender- then the center part with all of the couscous and super-tender leaves. Then I worked my way down and 
I would say that 3/4 of the leaves were completely edible, right down to their tippy-tips :-) Like I said- trim away the tough bits before you start cooking! You will be left with the last few, tougher, outer leaves, which you can then pick up and bite off almost to the ends- these are the only bits you will need to pick up with your fingers. And let me tell you- you will be licking those fingers as these things taste SO GOOD!

They will prove to be a lot less messy than you might imagine, as the couscous cooks but sticks wonderfully to the leaves- as do bread crumbs if you try the other variation. In any case, I hope you give these a try... you may never dip an artichoke again! I know I never will!

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