Choked Up Over Affairs of the Heart and a Tale of Freedom
It was imperative to return to Paris from my few days in Nice to be back in time for Artichoke Day.
No, it’s not a national holiday in the U.S. or France — it’s a Leeds Family Tradition that takes place on February 2nd and has for the last 17 years. (There is a “National Artichoke Hearts Day,” however, on March 16th.) Those close to me know the true story — how six artichokes managed to change our lives forever…and for the better.
Every year on February 2nd, I cook up artichokes as a celebration of the auspicious occasion and serve them to the closest of friends. It’s almost like a Passover Seder, as it’s a story of freedom and where the tale has to be told again and again every year while having a sumptuous dinner (and of course, lots of wine)!
Within minutes of arrival from Orly Airport, I dropped my bags and headed to the market with no time to waste. I bought 10 of the biggest artichokes I may have every seen…and they were a small fortune — about 5 each. But no matter — this is a small price to pay for freedom. There was one for each person, one for Elijah (actually me to eat the next day) and one for a neighbor to taste to whom I had bragged about the artichokes.
Artichokes are native to the Mediterranean and are part of the sunflower family. Greek mythology tells a tale where Zeus turned his mistress, Cynara, into an artichoke plant when he caught her sneaking away from Olympia to visit her mother. As you see, even for Cynara, it was a tale of freedom!
Some say that it was Catherine de’ Medici who introduced the artichoke to France in the 16th-century, but it’s not true. She did, however, have the nerve of scandalizing the court when she fainted after eating an extraordinary amount of artichokes because of their reputation as an aphrodisiac! Today, Lyon is the center of production for the cardoon variety growing about 100 metric tons a year, but the large globe camus artichoke that I bought is grown in Brittany and the poivrade variety is grown in Provence and other southern regions of France.
In the U.S. almost every artichoke is produced in California. The town of Castroville crowned its first Artichoke Queen in 1947 — a young actress named Norma Jean Mortenson (Marilyn Monroe!) and a festival is held there every year in May where they claim to be the “Artichoke Center of the World.” The industry in California was started by Swiss Italians and is now a $50 million annual crop.
I grew up eating artichokes in New Orleans, mostly served up Sicilian-style — stuffed (artichokeheart.wordpress.com/), but my mother marinated them in her own vinaigrette. This is the recipe I prefer to make — the kind where the oil is dripping down your arm as you scrape the tender meat off the spiny leaves.
Last night they were particularly delicious and copious. The hearts were the size of yarmulkes (scull caps). Everyone asks for the recipe, so here it is if you dare to have your own Artichoke Day!:
Artichoke Day Artichokes
A recipe by Adrian Leeds
Prepare the artichokes: cut off the stem, chop off the top of the artichoke and trim the points of each leaf. Wash and place them in a big pot or roaster with a small amount of water in the bottom. Cover.
Steam: Steam them on medium heat at least 1 hour, more or less depending on the thickness of the leaves. (These took 1.5 hours!)
Meanwhile prepare the dressing*: 1/3 vinegar and spices, 2/3 olive oil — mix a variety of vinegars (I like Balsamic, red wine, white, apple cider) with salt, pepper, one teaspoon of sugar, lots of oregano and tons of chopped garlic (never enough!). Be heavy handed with the spices. Add olive oil. Shake or stir well. *Note: the dressing is to your taste…so be creative!
Final step before serving: When the artichokes are steamed to perfection, drain off the water and pour the dressing over them while they’re hot, ensuring that the dressing is filling the leaves. Cover them to keep warm and then marinate them with the dressing as often as you can for as long as you can. (The aroma will fill your home delightfully.)
Voila! They’re ready to serve and eat at room temperature.
Eating: pull one leaf off at a time and with your teeth, scrape off the artichoke pulp. Discard the scraped leaf in a nearby bowl. Keep up this process until there are no leaves left, leaving only the choke and the heart. (THIS IS THE BEST PART!) Be sure to removed the choke (otherwise you’ll choke!) and then savor the heart.
BTW, the antioxidants in Artichokes are very good for your liver and helps promote healthy skin. Artichokes are also high in fiber, calcium and protein while low in calories. They are fat free and cholesterol free, so truly a healthy food with which to celebrate! And the celebration is all about affairs of the heart, unless you haven’t figured that out already!
A la prochaine…
Director of The Adrian Leeds Group, LLC
(Artichoke Day 2014)
P.S. There’s still time to book your stay at the luxurious La Côte du Paradis two bedroom apartment and enjoy the colorful, festive Carnaval in Nice! Save with this special offer: from February 14 until March 4, 2014 pay less than the regular high season rates — only 130 per night for stays of 4 nights or more, and the weekly rate is only 117 per night. Book now!