Whenever I hear the word artichokes, I think of a joke that I remember someone telling me when I was young:
In the old neighborhood, there was a certain element of organized crime. The block was rife with your usual hoodlums, captains, henchmen and drivers, but the most feared of all to walk the neighborhood were naturally the hitman; the killers. The most notorious one of these was a man named Arthur who was so vicious, they say he would kill for the tiniest amount of money. But he was good at his job too, so his skills were highly sought after. One day, a man approached Arthur about killing one of the man’s enemies and Arthur, being an enthusiastic worker, was quick to sign up for the job. However, the man was of very little means, but still needed his enemy dead. All he could offer Arthur was the sum of one dollar. Arthur could see how much this man wanted the deed to be done, and always up for a killing, Arthur agreed. So he got the details on the enemy and started following his target throughout town. He slinked behind his target as he made the way throughout his day. Followed him home, to his office and even to the supermarket. That’s where Arthur saw the opportunity to make the strike. He was in the frozen food aisle all alone and nobody was watching, so Arthur snuck up behind the target and wrapped his hands around his neck and started to strangle him. Within minutes, the deed was done and Arthur started to hightail it out of the store. That’s when he saw the man who had tasked him the job. He was laughing with friends and showing off a giant wad of cash. Apparently the man had plenty off means but knew he could get away with paying Arthur just a dollar to get the job done. This enraged Arthur and he ran up to the man and immediately started to choke him. Again, within minutes Arthur’s victim was dead. Arthur then just ran out of the store and hid from the police. Later, the investigators came and then the reporters started taking pictures. When the neighborhood opened their papers on the next morning they saw the terrifying headline: Artie Chokes Two for $1 at the A&P.
I’m not sure why that joke has always stood out in my mind, it’s kind of a long set-up, but it has. I think it just tickled me as someone who likes wordplay, even as a young boy. Nonetheless, that was my first introduction to artichokes. No, it was not a vegetable that was on our table as I was growing up. It kind of has a bad reputation of being hard to prepare along with not delivering a big enough payoff at the end. Come to think of it, I can kind of remember my Dad eating one. Picking the leaves off this strange pinecone looking vegetable and sucking the meat off the tips. Seemed like a lot of work, but I must admit, looked fun. That’s the beauty of the artichoke heart however. The hard work has been done for you. It’s been cooked and trimmed and you are left with just the good part which makes it easier to eat and work with.
Artichokes have been around for a very, very long time. In fact it’s one of the oldest foods known to man. They are native to the Mediterranean, so naturally they are entrenched in the food history of the cultures that originated in that area, which is pretty much all of Western culture. In Greek mythology, legend has it that the first artichoke was actually a woman named Cynara who the god Zeus took a fancy to. He made her a goddess (Zeus could do that kind of thing) but when Cynara grew homesick, she tried to sneak back into the world of the mortals. That enraged Zeus so much that he turned her into the vegetable that we now know of as the artichoke. Today, artichokes are still enjoyed around the globe. In the US, mostly all of the artichokes sold here come from California, although worldwide, most still come from the Mediterranean. They are a truly classic food that deserves our celebration. Today’s celebration is about the artichoke heart which is simply the meat of the vegetable – the usable part. Someone was nice enough to do all the grunt for for us and now the hearts come already cooked, trimmed and ready to eat. You can find artichoke hearts in the canned vegetable aisle or in your freezer section for easy use.*
When I told Lola it was National Artichoke Hearts Day she immediately reminded me that she loves artichoke hearts, especially the marinated kind that come in jars and are marinated in olive oil and spices. She has been known to eat these as a snack food right from the jar. In fact she told me a story about her being young and heading to a friend’s house to sit by the pool. Her friend’s Mom let them go to the store to get some snacks for the day and while most people would grab chips or candy, Lola grabbed a jar of marinated artichoke hearts as her snack du jour. That mom must have thought what a funny kid. But hey, you like what you like. Lola still enjoys the occasional jar of hearts when the occasion is right.
My first thought on how to celebrate today was to make an artichoke dip. That seems to be the most popular thing to do with artichokes and with good cause – artichoke dip is delicious. The bubbling cheese dangling from the end of a salty chip with that mildly nutty artichoke flavor throughout. That’s good eating. However, I wanted to make something little different, so I kept looking for recipes. I settled on a recipe I found from our old friend Rachael Ray for Lemon Artichoke Risotto.
Risotto, I find, is not hard to make, it’s just time consuming and requires your attention for the full twenty minutes or so it cooks. I’ve made a spring vegetable version of risotto before and we’ve always enjoyed that, so I thought this would be a good version to try. It is actually very similar in that you cook the arborio rice in butter along with some onions, and then you slowly add in liquid, in this case chicken stock. As the rice absorbs the liquid, you add in more liquid. You keep doing this stirring the rice and adding liquid for the twenty minutes until the rice is tender. Then you add in the other ingredients which in the case was the artichoke hearts, some parmesan cheese, some lemon zest and juice and some peas. The recipe actually called for parsley, but I thought the peas would be a nice touch, so I substituted. After you add all the ingredients in, it’s pretty much ready to serve. I scooped some out into big bowls and dinner was ready.
There were a lot of flavors happening here and I think the lemon was probably the most prevalent taste, although the artichoke was there as well. The rice was good and tender too, slightly starchy but well-flavored by the chicken stock. The cheese gave it another dimension and gave everything that nice little boost that cheese can give any dish. The peas were not a big factor in taste, but it was nice to have the bright green color in this dish that was otherwise somewhat dull looking with the white and yellow colors. The recipe called for using walnuts with the parsley, and I could see how that would make this a little better, especially by introducing the crunch of the nuts. But all in all, this ended up being a pretty good little dish that I’d be proud to serve any day. Lola liked it too although I’m sure she would have just preferred a plain old jar of artichokes and a fork.
It was nice to celebrate a day that took us down a savory route. These sweets have been filling us up. That’s a tough problem to have, I know, but it’s nice to mix things up. I really didn’t know that artichokes have been around for so long. It’s always fun to see how a food evolves with society over time and becomes part of the culture. Artichokes have grown with us and even though we may not eat them every day, they are always there in the background waiting for us. I like how the meat of the artichoke is called the heart. It’s appropriate. It’s the soul of this unusual looking vegetable – the part that nourishes us and makes us happy. All foods should have heart, even the vegetables. That would make them that much more special to celebrate, even if they are on sale for two for a dollar at the A&P.
Next Up: National Corned Beef & Cabbage Day ☘️
*Info from What’s Cooking America.net