Castroville, California, the “Artichoke Capital of the World” is located in Monterrey County short miles off of the Pacific Ocean. Being a rather quiet town as it was, causes me now to wonder how in the world I ever came to visit the place some years back given there were no celebratory parades at the time nor crowning of the Artichoke Queen whose incidental first was, Norma Jean, aka Marilyn Monroe. No kidding.
Upon further recollection, come to think of it, I do believe the big Artichoke Harvest Festival was occurring either one or two weeks before or after exploring this expanse farming community whose town seemed to run through one Main Street, definitely nothing fancy.
I did buy some sort of soft cover artichoke cookbook, which wouldn’t be uncommon for me who yes, even then always tended to make random cookbook purchases on trips and vacations.
Cookbooks always meant for heavier return luggage despite my illogical reasoning that I was also discarding things along the way too, you know like travel shampoo and conditioner bottles, toothpaste, and we all know how heavy a disposable razor can be.
Once worn, wrinkled clothing then served well wrapping around these essential treasures whose memories just sparked thought on an additional Castroville purchase at the time, some sort of knapsack style cloth fabric bag whose contents within the ribbon topped closure contained a plastic bag filled with some speckled, powdery substance whose purpose was likely a coating for frying artichokes, or otherwise, a mix for a dipping sauce. God Bless the former gift recipient on that one.
The area climate in the artichoke region of Castroville, Monterrey area, is indicated as prime for producing these green bulbs, not too cold, not too warm, sunny, then not sunny.
Notice in the previous sentence how I described the climate of Monterrey, California, including the words, not too warm, and please make a note of it, if this region in California happens to be on your list of travel destinations. For I cannot help but chuckle to myself on how many folks just hadn’t gotten the bulletin on this distinct cooler climate in California before packing and jetting off to a place where the use of ‘hot’ can only be associated with the fact that the natural beauty of the location is among the prettiest on earth.
They must do a whopping clothing boutique business in those parts however, for I’ve experienced not one, but two separate trips with folks who each arrived with swim suits and fancy top coverings in tow, and otherwise much too much lightweight clothing.
One woman most stubbornly never removed her east coast raincoat for five days busied cursing the misty, spritzing weather, loudly barking like the seals set on the craggy rock formations jutted above the chilling water. I fear she missed the magnificence surrounding her. I would rather have sprung for a new outfit and wish she would have too.
What never seems to be commonly answered among many foods, and in this case, artichokes, beckons the question, who was that very first person that looked at these yellowish, green, pink tinged, spiny, almost prickly, outer leafed bulbs, and thought, hey, this looks like good food to eat? I mean really, think about it. If it was thought to have similarities to cabbage before consuming, well I hardly want to imagine that sight, the gnawing and chewing and spitting that must have gone on to be sure, that is until they got to the real special surprise, the fuzzy, inedible choke. Yikes. This is a good reminder that when everything in life seems to be going wrong, it is worthwhile to just give it one more try, and with the artichoke, the reward at the very bottom, the tender artichoke heart with unique, flavorful qualities, sitting in wait, that one last try, displaying the best for last.
Actually, a bit curious on the matter, I learned that artichokes are indeed a very old cultivated vegetable whose origins, as early as 500 BC, go back to somewhere in the Mediterranean, with a few sites commonly sharing historically identified area possibilities as North Africa, or, Sicily. The Italians brought the artichoke to California through a large farm owner, Andrew Molera, in Castroville, identifying the possibilities of excellent profitability margins rather than previous farm crops grown.
There was even a mobster entanglement surrounding artichokes being forced into produce markets in New York at exorbitant prices and whose travesty was eventually put to an end under the leadership of the popular New York airport namesake, La Guardia. A small blurb outlining this scenario may be found on the kitchen project.
Each year in Spring limited amounts of artichokes begin appearing at produce markets on the east coast, bright green colored and tightly closed which is the best time to purchase them.
This year I prepared Stuffed Artichokes with Shrimp, Spinach, Mushrooms, Cheese, a good combination both appreciated and respected in my family for although artichokes are not hard to prepare, they are what I would call, fussy.
But an artichoke lover I am though, so outside of one special preparation occasion each year, bottled or canned versions, are always a pantry staple.
- 5 artichokes medium sized
- 1 lemon
- 1 box frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed of all water
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 4 scallions, chopped finely
- 1 clove garlic, chopped finely
- 3/4 cup finely diced mushrooms
- 1 scant cup small salad shrimp, rough chopped
- 3/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese
- 1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
- 2- 3 tablespoons butter
- 1/8 cup bread crumbs plus 1-2 tablespoons butter for heating
- coarse kosher salt
- cracked black pepper
- For the Lemon Butter Sauce
- Juice from 2 fresh lemons
- 3 tablespoons half and half
- 1 stick butter, cut into small bits
- Preparing the stuffing: Add butter to a hot, large sized saute pan set on medium high heat, swirl butter around, add in the mushrooms, shaking the pan so the mushrooms are not crowding, cook for two minutes, shake and stir mushrooms, cook another two minutes, reduce heat, add the scallions and garlic to the pan cook for a minute until beginning to soften, stir in the shrimp, cook two minutes, then stir through the spinach. Sprinkle a couple pinches each coarse kosher salt and cracked black pepper, check seasoning, adjust to taste. Once spinach is hot turn off heat, transfer to a bowl, stir in the cheeses, cool down, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until stuffing
- Preparing the Bread Crumb Topping: In a small saute pan melt butter on medium heat, stir through bread crumbs and cook a few minutes until bread crumbs turn slightly golden, turn off heat, transfer to a small bowl, set aside
- Preparing the Artichokes: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Fill a large glass bowl three quarters of the way up squeeze in the juice from the lemon then drop skins into water. On a cutting board, one at a time cut the stems off the bottoms of the artichokes so they sit squarely setting each artichoke into the lemon water once done. Next, remove any loose outer leaves off of each artichoke, discard. Using kitchen scissors, clip the pointy tips of the outer leaves all the way around for each artichoke. Once artichokes are prepped, place them into an oval casserole dish filled with cold water halfway up. Set each artichoke into the dish, cover with aluminum foil and cook for 35-40 minutes until the top center leaves of each artichoke are tender enough to spread open. Pull out the center leaves once cool enough to touch creating an open cavity in the center. Once all center leaves have been removed, using a sharp spoon, remove the exposed fuzzy choke until clean leaving exposed the heart of the artichoke beneath.
- Evenly spoon the shrimp, spinach, mushroom mixture into the open cavity, sprinkle all about with the buttered bread crumbs, return the stuffed artichokes to the water filled casserole dish, re-cover with aluminum foil and bake until filling is hot and cheese is melted, around fifteen minutes, remove foil, transfer artichokes to a baking sheet and finish cooking another 7-10 minutes until bread crumbs are crisped a bit all around.
- Preparing the Lemon Butter Sauce: Add lemon juice to a saucepan and reduce for a few minutes, turn off heat, drizzle in the half and half, stir until blended, then whisk butter in by bits turn heat to low, continue whisking in the remaining bits of butter a little at a time until smooth, sprinkle in a pinch or two of salt. Before spread a ladle of Lemon Butter Sauce onto each plate and set stuffed artichoke on top