Getting Choked Up for the 21st Time
I created my own holiday 21 years ago that only a few people know (or care) about. It’s called “Artichoke Day.” It’s a Leeds family tradition that takes place every February 2nd, and has every year since 1998, one year after artichokes changed the course of my and my daughter’s lives.
The same group of friends (more or less) come from far and wide (Ann Arbor, Nice, Chicago via Provence, the 11th Arrondissement, etc.) to celebrate with me and partake of the succulent artichokes (get the bad pun?) along with a multi-course dinner of my making. Since I have given up cooking in any real sense of the word, the fact that I cook on this one day every year makes it even more special.
By coincidence, March 16th happens to be “National Artichoke Hearts Day,” which has nothing to do with MY Artichoke Day. “According to the California Artichoke Advisory Board, artichokes are a good source of antioxidants, vitamin C, folate and magnesium. The antioxidants in artichokes are very good for your liver and help promote healthy skin. Artichokes are also high in fiber, calcium and protein while low in calories. For all of these reasons, along with being fat-free and cholesterol free, artichokes are truly a healthy and delicious food to celebrate!” (Source: nationaldaycalendar.com/national-artichoke-hearts-day-march-16/)
We New Orleanians have the French to thank for bringing them to Louisiana when they settled there in the early 1800s. Later that century, they were brought to California by the Spaniards. A thistle of the sunflower family, they are native to the Mediterranean and Canary Islands. While they grow year-round, spring and fall are their best seasons, and even though there are 140 or more varieties, less than 40 are grown for sale and consumption. France, Italy, and Spain can be proud of their artichoke production, but 100% of U.S. artichokes are grown in California. Castroville in Monterey County is the “The Artichoke Center of the World” (or so they say) and holds the annual Castroville Artichoke Festival every May.
The history of the artichoke goes way back before the French brought them to Louisiana. In fact, a Greek philosopher a few hundred centuries before Christ wrote about them being grown in Italy and Sicily. Ancient Greeks and Romans not only thought of them as a delicacy, but as an aphrodisiac, and thought that eating them would produce more sons. In the 16th-century, eating artichokes was reserved for only men because of their so-called power to enhance the sexual appetite. That may have been why California producers named Marilyn Monroe as the first official California Artichoke Queen in 1949.
There is a dispute about the origins of the name “artichoke,” for what is their scientific classification: Genus – Cynara, Species – C. cardunculus, Variety – C. c. var. scolymus. Some suggest the name comes from the northern Italian words articiocco and articoclos, a term that comes from the Ligurian word cocali, meaning a pine cone. However, other sources claim it comes from the Arab, “al’qarshuf” rather than from the Latin, “cynara.” It doesn’t really matter to me what they are called. There are lots of tales to tell about the artichoke, but I’m just happy that they made it to my table.
My affiliation with artichokes comes from my Louisiana roots and my mother’s love for them. My recipe is basically hers and hers was basically Italian — steamed to be tender and then marinated in a garlic-rich Italian-style dressing. Those close to me know the true story of how Artichoke Day came to pass. One of these days in the not too distant future, if you read the memoir I’m still in the long process of writing, you’ll learn the story, too — how five artichokes managed to change our lives forever…and for the better. It’s a story of freedom, much like the exodus of the slaves from Egypt and where the tale has to be told again and again every year while having a sumptuous dinner (accompanied by lots of champagne and wine)!
Friday morning I started out early with a marketing cart in tow to the Marché Popincourt on boulevard Richard-Lenoir between the rues Oberkampf and Jean-Pierre Timbaud in the 11th. Patty Sadauskas met me there to help choose the best ‘chokes. We walked the entire length of the market down all the aisles to peruse the stands to see which had the best ones. This year, contrary to the last few years, I chose a different variety of “Globe” artichokes which could possibly be the variety known as “Green Globe Pina.” There are so many new varieties grown in many parts of the world now, so it’s tough to be sure which this one was. If it was a “Pina,” then I could count on it to be very tender and almost entirely edible.
The vendor allowed me to choose nine from the crate myself, and charged 2,50€ per kilo — a whopping 8€ total. Last year, the five big Globe artichokes I bought cost me 20€! Was I taken for a fool last year? It’s entirely possible! But, you understand, I didn’t care. It was Artichoke Day and nothing else mattered but the best artichokes I could find.
Once the artichokes were safely tucked away, I set out to purchase the rest of the meal: a whole fresh salmon (cut into one-inch think steaks), four bundles of white asparagus, two big heads of garlic, a few lemons and off I went home, with my six-wheel Rolser shopping trolley (that mounts the stairs easily) stuffed with the fixin’s for the Artichoke Day Dinner. At home, the artichokes were set aside for their preparation the next morning and dinner to be served Saturday night.
The dinner opened with the artichokes as the first course. Each person was given at least two cloth napkins: one to protect clothing and a another one to absorb the vinaigrette that dripped down our arms while scraping the pulp from each leaf with our teeth. In the center of the table was placed a big bowl to dispose of the eaten leaves, with everyone tossed them in one by one. When we managed to devour all the leaves, we reveled in the hearts — the true prize of it all.
Every year, there’s at least one guest who asks for the story to be told, just like one might tell the tale at a Passover Seder, and then inevitably, someone starts to sing “Mah nishtanah, ha-laylah ha-zeh, mi-kol ha-leylot?” (Why is this night different from all the other nights?) Which of course, always gets a big laugh. By that time, we’re pretty drunk anyway and would laugh at just about anything.
For all of you who wish to have your own Artichoke Day, you can certainly cook them any way you like, but here’s is the official Artichoke Day recipe:
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 with scissors. Wash and place them in a big pot or covered roasting pan with a small amount of water in the bottom. Cover and steam: Steam them on low to medium heat at least 1 hour, more or less depending on the thickness of the leaves.
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. Then, 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. I use a turkey baster to do the job. Eight hours is best. (Be prepared: 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 remove the choke (otherwise you’ll choke!) and then savor the heart.
BTW, the reason I made nine with only eight guests is…you guessed it! The last remaining artichoke was for me to savor the next day, naturally! And so I did.
Happy Artichoke Day to any of you who wish to have your own.
A la prochaine…
Adrian Leeds Group
(at Popincourt Market, by Patty Sadauskas)
P.S. If you missed it the first time — recently — you have another chance to watch our “Pining After Paris” on House Hunters International, Tomorrow! Details available here. Watch it or set your DVR now! (And remember, you can always check to see if there are ny episodes airing on our site