stuffed artichoke photo

An Appetizer from Heaven

Your turn has come to host the party, and you want to move beyond the world of cold vegetables and ranch dressing for your appetizer. Unfortunately, you're at a loss as to what you can prepare in advance that will wow your guests, complement the wine you will serve and, if dinner is to follow, set the stage for your masterpiece. Fear not, here is the dish you seek, along with suggestions for the proper wines to serve with it.

Carciofi alla Sicilia, or for us Italian wanna-bees, Sicilian artichokes, are one of my favorite appetizers. They are also one of my wife's signature dishes taken from a generations-old family recipe. If you're unfamiliar with artichokes and have wondered where those strange looking things in the vegetable section originated, here is a short history. According to historians, the artichoke originated in either the Levant, North Africa, or Sicily itself. The word in Italian for artichoke is carciofo which is derived from the Arabic kharshuff. Since the western part of Sicily was ruled by the Saracens (Tunisians) for over two hundred years (832-1087), the case for artichokes originating in North Africa is rather strong. However, Greek and Roman artistic representations long before that time argue in favor of Sicily as the home of the artichoke. It's interesting to note that according to author Roberta Gangi, the ancient Romans believed that the artichoke was an aphrodisiac. In any case, artichokes came of note in the USA when Italian immigrants began cultivating varieties in California in the last century and Italian immigrants in other parts of the country prepared them using family recipes brought over from Sicily.

man preparing the artichoke dish
Stuffing the artichokes.

After you've prepared this marvelous dish, if you've never eaten it before or have never even seen it, you might wonder how to serve it, how to eat it, and what wines to serve with it. First of all, Carciofi alla Sicilia can be served warm or cold according to your preference. If cooked several hours or more beforehand and refrigerated, it can be warmed in either an oven or a microwave.

This dish contains several edible and delicious sections. The soft tips of the individual leaves and the stuffing that adheres to each leaf are both mouth-wateringly good. To eat these, simply: (1) peel each leaf from the artichoke by pinching the outermost edge of the leaf between your fingers, (2) insert the leaf (with the stuffing that adheres to the top) into your mouth, then (3) pull the leaf out of your mouth while scraping off the stuffing and soft inner and interior edge portions of the leaf between your upper and lower teeth. After the leaves have been peeled off the heart and the bottom of the stem cut off, the heart dipped in a balsamic vinaigrette dressing is an epicurean end to a fabulous appetizer.

plate of articokes and glass of wine
Presentation. Photos: Terry Duarte

Since we are going all Sicilian, the wines should be from Sicily as well. If you want to offer both white wine and red, I recommend for the white Tasca d'Almerita's Regaleali Bianco, a blend of grecanico, inzolia, and catarratto. The latter two are Sicily's main white grapes. For the reds, I recommend Regaleali Nero D'Avola, often compared to the syrah grape. Both of these are inexpensive, costing about $10-15 a bottle.

Because this dish was common in Sicily, there are a number of varieties. This one is my favorite. Buon appetito, mi amici!

Carciofi alla Sicilia (Sicilian Artichokes)

Ingredients: 3 artichokes

Cut off the bottom stems of the artichokes so that they can sit flat.

Slice off ½ inch from the top of the artichokes.

W/ scissors, cut off the sharp tips of each leaf and discard small leaves on the bottom.

Pull the leaves apart to rinse the artichokes thoroughly and turn upside down to drain.

In a large bowl, combine all of the ingredients except the artichokes and only two tablespoons of olive oil and mix thoroughly by hand.

Place an artichoke on a sheet of wax paper or plate and, using a teaspoon, stuff each leaf beginning at the bottom.

After stuffing a leaf, press the stuffing into the leaf using the back of the spoon. Continue around the artichoke until the all of the leaves are filled and the artichoke appears to double in size. Use all of the stuffing that falls on the wax paper or plate.

Repeat the process with the other artichokes.

Place a rack in the bottom of a large pot or Dutch oven and add 1 inch of water in the pot.

Place artichokes in the pot (use a custard cup if necessary to make them stand upright) and drizzle about 1 tablespoon of olive oil on each artichoke, attempting to get some oil on each stuffed leaf.

Place a lemon slice on top of each artichoke.

Cover the pot, bring water to a boil and reduce heat to a simmer.

Steam for 1 hour or until a leaf feels loose or can be easily pulled out or until the artichokes feel tender when stuck with a fork. Remember to check and add water as necessary during the cooking period.

July 2009

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