The legend goes that Zeus, king of the gods, came down from Mt. Olympus to visit his brother, Poseidon, near the sea. As he looked out across the sparkling waters of the Aegean, his vision fell upon a beautiful young woman standing barefoot on the grey stones that stretched out along the shoreline of the island, Kinaros. She stared back across the sea, eyes like fire, unfazed by his formidable divinity. Their gaze locked in what can only be called, An Embrace of Fate.
What Zeus wants, Zeus gets. At that moment he wanted nothing more intensely than this mortal, with eyes that burned with vitality and a face like a flower, upturned toward the sun. She was named Cynara, for the island she called home.
Zeus, being a cunning séducteur, approached Cynara in all his glory and promised her the sky and the moon if she would agree to be his lover. She refused. He promised her all the flowers in the fields above the sea. Still, she declined. Then, drawing back into himself as if to stir up that FOMO we humans find so powerful, he made one last offer, something she couldn’t possibly resist. Zeus would grant Cynara the gift of goddess-hood, lifting her mortal soul from the dirt and stone of this earth if, in return, she would live always near him in the home of the gods upon Mt. Olympus – his mistress in an affair that would last an eternity, so long as Hera, his wife (and sister), was well occupied.
This was something Cynara simply could not refuse. Could any of us? So, on that day she took her last mortal step from the sun-baked rocks of the coastline into the cool marble halls of Mt. Olympus.
Days turned to weeks while their affair stretched long through cool nights like a fisherman’s line cast deep into the blue sea. Hera was often busy with matters of royalty, leaving Zeus and Cynara to pursue more carnal diversions. As months rolled into years, however, Cynara began to feel the twinges of lonesomeness deep within her soul. You see, however resilient the human heart is, it’s soft like the clay of the earth, never forgetting the stuff from which it’s formed, despite even the workings of a god. In time, Cynara’s heart began to ache for those sun-drenched rocks that burned the soles of her feet, for the quenching coolness of the Aegean, for the salt of the sea as it dried in her hair. She missed her mother’s warm embrace, the crackle of the fire on the hearth, the smell of bread baking over coals. While the existence of a god is cold and hard, the human condition is a mélange of fire and ice, pain and pleasure, salted tears and love. These mortal longings were such that they couldn’t be satisfied, even by the flame of Zeus’ passion.
Cynara began to sneak out, visiting her home and her mother in the evenings, walking along the sea as the sun set even though she could no longer feel its warmth. And Zeus, when calling on Cynara and finding her bedchamber more often than not, empty, became enraged. There’s nothing more maddening than the scorn of a mortal.
I said at the beginning, Zeus was cunning, and so he devised a trap and set watchmen to inform him of when Cynara slipped out of the ice-grey halls to set foot once again on the dust of the earth. Then he entered her bedchamber and disappeared behind the tapestry in wait. When Cynara returned, with a touch of pink in her cheeks, Zeus thundered into the room, gathered her body into his massive palms and crushed and crumbled her limbs like a handful of dry leaves until all that was left was her tender human heart. This he threw back down from the heights of Olympus to the rocky island of Kinaros.
Out of that, which was the heart of Cynara planted deep within the soil of the earth, grew a slender, golden stalk, with a flower that turned sunward. Her petals were armed with savage barbs, guarding a soft but resilient heart inside – a heart made of earth and sun, the prize of men and gods alike. Thus grew Cynara cardunculus – what we know as the common artichoke.
Many times, when I’m shopping with my youngest, Eva, I will ask, “What should we have for dinner?”
Invariably she will answer, “Artichokes!”
Often I have to say, “I’m sorry, they’re not in season right now.” But not during the month of May. In May we indulge on the freshest artichokes I can find, eating enough to hopefully satisfy our cravings throughout the rest of the year. The kids love to have theirs steamed with a little bowl of melted salted butter to dip the petals into. I like to eat mine with a simple vinaigrette. After that, I’ll roast them to toss with pasta, or stuff them with breadcrumbs and cheese. We never get tired of artichokes – the most delicious edible flower!
Greek-Inspired Stuffed Artichokes
Many stuffed artichoke recipes call for leaving the choke intact while stuffing and cooking. That doesn’t make sense to me, as there’s so much more space for the stuffing when this inedible part is removed. It’s an extra step, but 100% worth the effort. I start by steaming the artichokes, just long enough to be able to peel back the petals and remove the choke. The resulting cavity is stuffed with breadcrumbs, salty feta, oregano and fresh lemon. The artichokes finish cooking in the oven. These stuffed artichokes are so large and savory, it’s a meal in itself.
- 2 large globe artichokes
- 1 lemon, zested and cut in half
- 3 cups fresh bread crumbs
- 1 tsp dry oregano
- 2 TBSP finely crumbled traditional feta (sheep’s milk)
- 3 TBSP extra virgin olive oil, divided
- 2 cloves garlic, minced
- 1/2 tsp salt
- 1/8 tsp black pepper
Place a steamer basket in a large pot with about an inch of water in the bottom. Cover and bring to a simmer.
Trim the artichokes. (I always trim the artichokes before washing to protect my hands from the thorns. Once the artichoke is trimmed you can wash it without worrying.) Remove and discard the small dry leaves near the base of the flower. Starting with the lowest petals, work your way around the artichoke with kitchen sheers, trimming away the thorns. Cut off the top inch of the artichoke with a sharp serrated knife. Cut off the stem so that the artichokes sit flat. The stems can be peeled and cooked along with the artichokes for a “cook’s treat.” Now wash the artichokes under running water, scrubbing the outer petals with your hands and gently separating the petals to wash inside.
Rub the cut areas of the artichokes with lemon. Place upside down in the steamer basket.
Cover the pan and turn the heat to medium-low. Cook the artichokes for 20 minutes, just until they begin to soften. Remove the artichokes and place upside down in a colander to drain and cool.
Preheat the oven to 375 F/ 190 C.
Make the stuffing: Heat 2 tablespoons of oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the bread crumbs and toss. Cook, stirring constantly to prevent burning, until the crumbs are slightly golden and toasty, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat and place in a bowl. Stir in the oregano, 1 teaspoon of lemon zest, the feta, salt and pepper.
When the artichokes are cool enough to handle, gently open up the petals, pulling them back from the center to reveal a mound of pale, baby petals with the thorns still attached. Remove these by careful pulling them out with your hands. Underneath you will find the fibrous choke. Use a spoon to scoop out and discard the choke, being careful not to damage the artichoke heart just beneath. This will create a cavity in which to place the stuffing.
Fill the center cavities with stuffing. Place the remaining stuffing in-between the individual petals. Place the stuffed artichokes upright in a baking dish that is just large enough to hold the two artichokes. Drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil. Pour about 1 inch of water into the dish. Cover tightly with foil. Bake for 30 minutes. Uncover and continue baking for 10 minutes longer, until the breadcrumbs are golden and crunchy.