The stuffed artichoke at Liuzza's looks something like a turtle napping on a bed of lettuce, its grayish helmet of breadcrumb stuffing camouflaging the spiny vegetable. Its aroma -- like all of Italy's garlic -- is much more enticing than its appearance. The mound of soft stuffing, excavated with a fork or scraped from the artichoke's leaves with your teeth, tastes deeply of olive oil, lemon and an elusive brininess. "Only grandmothers make those," says one waitress. "They're very time consuming."
Indeed, when you ask a native Orleanian about his relationship to the peculiar vegetable-entree, you often learn that his mother stuffed artichokes by the dozen whenever they went on sale at the market; or that his grandmother stuffed them every Mardi Gras to serve with brociolone and red gravy. When I thought to ask my own grandmotherly neighbor about stuffed artichokes, she presented me with one she just happened to have made the night before.
It's not immediately clear how the stuffed artichoke became as commonplace in New Orleans as olive salad and meatballs, especially because artichoke plants in Louisiana are few and far between. The going rate for California artichokes in early March was around $2.50 apiece, a true extravagance in a town that's known, culinarily speaking, to make much out of little. Artichokes originated in Sicily, where they flourish in the hot sun and soil cut with volcanic ash, and the widespread assumption is that the habit of stuffing artichokes traveled over with the influx of Sicilian immigrants that arrived in New Orleans around the turn of the 20th century.
Irene DiPietro, the Sicilian-born chef-owner of Irene's Cuisine, grew up eating artichokes like apples, but she doubts that the Sicilians had much to do with the stuffed artichokes that Orleanians love today: "I found out about them when I came to New Orleans. They're like meatballs, which you don't find much in Italy either." Christian Rossit, the new chef at La Riviera, agrees. In Venice he was raised on deep-fried baby artichokes stuffed with bell peppers and Fontina cheese, but none of the breadcrumb bombs he has come to know in New Orleans.
"I grew up with my mother stuffing them like they do here," counters Chef-owner Andrea Apuzzo of Andrea's Restaurant in Metairie, whose family still cultivates artichokes on the island of Capri. He reports that he wowed his employers upon first arriving in New Orleans because the local cuisine -- heavy red sauces, beans with rice, stuffed artichokes -- so matched the cooking style he had learned in his homeland.
The French originally learned about artichokes from their Italian neighbors, and they seem to have instilled an artichoke tradition into the New Orleans' cuisine long before the Sicilians arrived. The Picayune's Creole Cook Book, published in 1901, contains six artichoke recipes, including one for boiled French Artichokes and another for Stuffed Artichokes "a la Barigoule," which contain garlic, ham and mushrooms but no breadcrumbs. In fact, whoever is responsible for the custom of tripling an artichoke's weight by cramming it full of garlicky breadcrumbs, Orleanians were eating artichokes as far back as 1753. That's when Jean Charles Pradel, a French officer-turned-farmer, began growing them on his West Bank plantation and selling them at the city's markets.
Given the local investment in stuffed artichokes -- not to mention oyster-artichoke soup, fried artichoke hearts and spinach-artichoke dip -- why aren't more artichokes grown in Louisiana today? Lucy and Allen Capdeboscq, small farmers from Independence, will sell their artichokes at the Crescent City Farmers Market in early April if the weather cooperates. Lucy says that Louisiana farmers stopped growing artichokes once interstate commerce made California artichokes readily available. Her own 1,000 plants are "persnickety, they have to be babied," whereas the warm days and cool nights of northern California allow for two easy artichoke harvests a year. Lucy doesn't know of any other area farmers currently cultivating artichokes for retail purposes.
Along with fig cakes, fava beans and decorative breads, artichokes are integral to New Orleans' St. Joseph's Day celebrations; the long trip from California won't keep stuffed artichokes from the traditional non-meat altars this week and next. In the spirit of the holiday, take a tour through the city's wood-paneled dining rooms in pursuit of your own favorite (go with a posse of big eaters, as breadcrumbs tend to overtake a stomach). Or try your hand at a batch of your own -- there's a grandmother lurking in all of us.
Liuzza's Restaurant & Bar
According to servers, anchovies and cured black olives contribute the slight brininess to Liuzza's deeply delicious artichoke stuffing. The leaves here, infused with serious olive oil flavor, were the most tender I sampled in late February. If you're a texture person, the mushy stuffing could pose a challenge.
Franky & Johnny's
As with roast beef po-boys and fried catfish, some of the best stuffed artichokes are served under low ceilings and surrounded by wood-paneled walls. The garlic factor at Franky & Johnny's is intense, which should help you get even with a date whose hands reek of boiled crawfish. Unfortunately, the legendary neighborhood spot is typical of many restaurants in serving up stuffed artichokes that arrive refrigerator-cold at the center. But the staff here is so amenable they'll call you sweetheart if you send yours back to be re-heated.
Crazy Johnnie's Steakhouse
Even a Fat City steakhouse abides by this oddball New Orleans tradition. At a bargain-basement $5.50, Crazy Johnnie's crumbly, garlic-powered version must be one of the least expensive sold in a restaurant. And the urge for one is catching; a server ordered one for herself once she caught a whiff of mine.
Though not made on-site, the traditional stuffed artichokes at Luigi's (the same as those sold next door at Central Grocery) are rock-solid in both quality and quantity. I recently spotted girlfriends sharing one over wine coolers -- a viable alternative to afternoon tea.
Weighing in at 1 lb. 8 oz., a stuffed artichoke from Dorignac's deli is more vegetable than most people encounter in a week. It's characterized by a dryish, toasty brown crumb and a tidy, pinecone-like appearance. This is where John Fury Sr. (of Fury's neighborhood Italian restaurant) likes to get his.
Hardly traditional, Carmine's rendition of the stuffed artichoke involves crawfish tails, fried shrimp and fried catfish nuggets scattered over an artichoke and doused in saffron-dill cream sauce. The rub: the artichoke is a mere vessel, stripped of its tender center leaves and its prized bottom. -->
These freeze beautifully, so consider doubling the recipe. Re-heat by popping them in the microwave or steaming them on the stovetop.
6 cups breadcrumbs, either homemade or store-bought
2 cups freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 Tbsp. dried basil
1/2 Tbsp. dried oregano
1/2 Tbsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1 tsp. ground black pepper
1 2-oz. can anchovy fillets packed in olive oil
10 medium-size garlic cloves, minced
2/3 + 1 1/2 cups extra virgin olive oil
Zest two lemons; mince lemon zest and set aside. Cut lemons in half and place three halves in a large pot of salted water; reserve fourth half. One at a time, trim artichoke stems down to 1/2 inch. Place stems in a small saucepan, cover with water and set pan aside. With a serrated knife, cut 3/4 inch from top of each artichoke to achieve a flat surface. Tear small leaves from base of artichoke, plus thickest outer leaves, especially ones that are beginning to brown. Rub cut areas of artichoke with reserved lemon half to prevent browning. Next, gently spread apart artichoke leaves so that the innermost leaves are visible. Pull out small, prickly leaves at center. Using a paring knife, scrape around fuzzy choke to loosen it from artichoke bottom; scoop fuzz out with a teaspoon. As each artichoke is trimmed, immerse it in the pot of salted, acidulated water to keep from browning and to tease out any hidden bugs.
In a large bowl, combine breadcrumbs, Parmesan, basil, oregano, thyme, cayenne, black pepper and 1 Tbsp. salt. On stovetop, bring water with artichoke stems to a boil. Lower heat to a simmer and cook 15 minutes. Cool, peel and chop stems, and add to breadcrumb mixture. Using the same small saucepan, warm anchovies and their oil over lowest possible heat. Stir constantly until anchovies dissolve into a creamy sauce. Stir in lemon zest, garlic and 2/3 cup olive oil. Pour entire anchovy mixture over breadcrumb mixture. Using your hands, toss to combine thoroughly.
Place artichokes on a rack stem-side up to drain for at least 15 minutes. Fill two large pots with 1/2-inch salted water; add a lemon cut into quarters to each pot, and place a colander or a vegetable steamer into each one. To stuff artichokes, one by one place them stem-side down into a wide bowl. First fill the center hole with stuffing. Then, carefully spreading leaves apart, spoon stuffing into the cup of each leaf. When all leaves are stuffed, press stuffing down with the palm of your hand. Stand each artichoke up in colander or vegetable steamer. When all artichokes are stuffed, drizzle remaining olive oil over artichokes, allowing oil to seep into stuffing. Cut remaining lemon into six slices and place one on top of each artichoke. Any leftover stuffing can be frozen for later use.
Place both pots over high heat. When water comes to a boil, reduce to a simmer. Cover and let steam until a center leaf from each artichoke pulls out easily, anywhere from 1 to 2 hours. Using kitchen tongs and/or large serving spoons, transfer artichokes to individual bowls or appropriately sized serving dishes, stem-side down. Serve warm or at room temperature, as an appetizer for many or an entree for one.