Artichokes Oreganata: The Perfect Spring Appetizer

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Two of my favorite appetizers are clam and shrimp oreganata. The name "oreganata" basically infers the addition of oregano into the classic fresh bread crumb-garlic-olive oil stuffing that is generously stuffed into the clam (or on top of a shrimp) and then baked until golden. It's wonderful, very simple but packed with flavor, and presents beautifully.
A recent farm order gave me baby artichokes. I decided to adapt the same oreganata idea but this time adding some fresh lemon zest and parmesan cheese into the mixture, then stuffing it into the chokes and baking them until golden. A fresh squeeze of lemon juice right before serving made these simple perfection. And the size and shape of the baby artichokes make them perfect for an appetizer or cocktail party.
You'll need a little prep work in preparing the 'chokes, but it's not too hard. Here's how you take the choke out of a raw artichoke (you can do this with a full size artichoke as well).
1. Cut the artichoke in half lengthwise, and trim off the lower stem. Then, peel back the outermost leaves and discard.

2. Turn the artichoke over to expose the heart and choke. You'll notice a network of layered leaves. The purplish/brown ones (color depends on size and species of your artichoke) need to be removed; they are not edible.

3. Using your thumb, pull down on the centermost leaves like so, and pop them out using your finger  use a spoon to help if you need to):

4.  Next, remove the choke. The choke is this little disk shape hairy section that sits above the stem and under those innermost leaves you just removed. It's usually colored a bright green/puce color; you'll notice it by its hairy texture. Use a good spoon to scrape out that choke, leaving a nice smooth heart of the artichoke like so:

5. Lemon bath.  Immediately after prepping each artichoke half, place them in a large bowl filled with cold water and the juice and halves of a couple of lemons. The lemons will help the artichokes not oxidize (brown) too quickly, and gives a nice subtle lemon "marinade" to them as well.

6. Read to use.  At this point, in the water bath your chokes are now ready to be used in whatever fashion you like. You can fry them, bake them, stuff them, roast them, grill them -- however you wish to prepare them. Following now, is my recipe for Artichoke Oreganata.

Artichoke Oreganata
4-6 baby artichokes halved, and prepped for stuffing (see above)
1 cup fresh bread crumbs*
3 cloves garlic, minced  (or to taste, we like it very garlicky in our house)
1 1/2 - 2 Tbsp olive oil
sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
zest of 1/2 lemon
1 tsp fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped (can also use 1/2 tsp dried oregano)
1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves (can also use 1/4 tsp dried)
2 heaping tablespoons of finely grated parmesan cheese
fresh lemon wedges or juice for serving

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Combine the bread crumbs, garlic, salt and pepper to taste in a mixing bowl. Add the olive oil enough to moisten the crumbs, not make them soggy or dripping with oil. Add the lemon zest, herbs, and cheese and mix to combine. This is your stuffing and can be done about an hour in advance if you wish.

When you are ready to stuff the artichokes, take them out of the lemon water and lightly pat dry. Drizzle the bottom of the baking dish you are using with a little olive oil and place the artichokes all open-faced side down; drizzle their backsides with a little oil and season with some salt and pepper to taste -- remember, we must season every part of the dish, not count on the stuffing to do all the flavor work for us! Turn each artichoke over and season with oil, salt and pepper again. Use a light hand with the salt especially -- remember we have it and salty parmesan cheese in the stuffing so a little will go along way but still make the difference!

Take each artichoke and stuff it with a heaping teaspoon's worth of the stuffing. Using a dinner teaspoon as opposed to a measuring spoon works perfectly. Pack the spoon generously with the stuffing, then gently smoosh it into the cave of the artichoke in one move; the crumbs will fall off a little bit but if you're too timid, the whole thing will fall apart. Be confident in your stuffing!

Cover with aluminum foil and bake in oven for 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 10-15 minutes or until crumbs are golden brown. We're covering it the first half of cooking because the artichokes need time to cook; you want them nice and tender to bite into, and the bread crumbs will cook far faster than the body of the artichoke.

To serve, simply lay out on a platter and squeeze some fresh lemon juice right on top. Serve immediately.

*To make fresh bread crumbs, simple take a slice of white sandwich or day-old crusty French or Italian bread and process in the food processor until larger crumbs are achieved. You can store them in an airtight bag or container for up to a week. Conversely, most stores offer fresh bread crumbs for purchase as well.

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